Education

Texas School Suspends Student for Declining to Worship the Flag—Because That's What America's All About

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Norman Rockwell

If you are a fan of the First Amendment, you probably have heard of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the 1943 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said public schools may not force students to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am guessing that officials at Needville High School have not heard of Barnette, because if they had they probably would have thought twice about suspending 15-year-old Mason Michalec for refusing to stand during the pledge. KHOU, the CBS station in Houston (which is about 45 miles from Needville), reports that Michalec was given a two-day in-school suspension for remaining seated. Now the principal is threatening him with another suspension unless he gets with the program.

Michalec explained that he sat as an act of protest because he was "really tired of our government taking advantage of us." He added, "I basically said it from the time I was in kindergarten to earlier this year, and that's when I finally decided I was done saying it….I'm angry, frustrated and annoyed that they would try to write me up for something I have the right to do."

Barnette involved Jehovah's Witnesses, who object to flag worship because they (quite plausibly) view it as a form of idolatry. But the decision was based on freedom of speech, which includes the right to refrain from agreement, as well as freedom of religion. Justice Robert Jackson seemed to think the principles at stake were pretty important:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us. 

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

Maybe the teacher and principal who suspended Michalec thought making him stand for the Pledge of Allegiance was fundamentally different from making him recite it or making him salute the flag. (It's not.) More likely, they did not think at all.