Compelling an atheist high school student to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance against his will was a mistake rooted in ignorance of his 1st Amendment protections, a misperception that apparently existed throughout the Oak Park Unified School District, the superintendent said.
The kerfuffle started after the ninth-grade student at Oak Park High School in Ventura County reported that he was "intimidated" by his teacher into joining his classmates and standing for the pledge, according to the American Humanist Assn.
FOR THE RECORD
4:07 p.m.: An earlier version of this post should have clarified that the student had to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance against his will, not stand and recite it.
The student, who was not identified, reported the incident on the association's Don't Say the Pledge website, which allows students to download and print a boycott card to show teachers and inform them of their 1st Amendment protections.
When the association saw the complaint, it notified the school district and demanded action.
"The student's objection to 'under God' in the Pledge demonstrates thoughtful consideration that deserves respect," Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the association, said in a statement.
School officials have since apologized to the student for the teacher's actions.
"It was a mistake," Anthony Knight, superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District, said Tuesday.
Students, he said, have the right and will be allowed to remain seated during the pledge.
The issue arose because the teacher did not know of the student's constitutional protections for both refusing to recite and stand for the pledge, Knight said. It was a lack of understanding that apparently applied districtwide, he added.
That prompted a memo to teachers: "Compelling a student to stand or participate in any way is considered a violation of the student's First Amendment rights to free speech and expression," Knight wrote. "There may be a commonly held misunderstanding that students can decide to refrain from saying the Pledge but can be required to stand out of respect. This is not correct."
He also advised teachers of a social media campaign encouraging students to object to the pledge and report any backlash.
The American Humanist Assn.'s Don't Say the Pledge site asks students to "stand up for America by sitting down during the Pledge of Allegiance boycott until the inclusive version is restored."