Seattle student sues school over punishment for not reciting pledge

Thursday, April 30, 1998

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A middle school student in Seattle who was removed from class for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag has sued his school district.

A lawyer for Jim Bobrik, a Jehovah's Witness and student at Sylvester Middle School, warned the Highline School District in March that if a program educating teachers and students about First Amendment rights was not implemented, the youngster would sue. Bobrik claims his religious-liberty rights were violated when his science teacher expelled him from class in February for not pledging allegiance to the flag.

School officials, however, maintained that the teacher had acted appropriately in removing Bobrik from class. Nick Latham, a spokesman for the Highline district, said in March that the district was investigating whether Bobrik was removed from class for being disrespectful.

Brady R. Johnson, Bobrik's lawyer, filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, alleging that the science teacher's actions violated the boy's religious-liberty rights. Bobrik's religious beliefs require him to honor God—not political symbols—said Johnson.

“It is a violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to require anyone to recite a religious oath,” Johnson said. “In the case of the pledge, it violates some people's religion to take an oath to God.”

Bobrik claims in his suit that in early February he entered his first-period class and stood up with the other students, but remained silent as they recited the pledge. His science teacher, Michael Sienkiwich, demanded Bobrik salute the flag, but he refused to do so. Sienkwich ordered him outside, Bobrik said, where he stood in the rain for 15 minutes. Upon his return to class, Sienkiwich threatened him with further punishment should he refuse to recite the pledge again, Bobrik said.

In 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. Barnette that a young Jehovah's Witness did not have to recite the pledge. In striking down the state's compulsory pledge law, Justice Robert Jackson noted: “Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity …Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

In the same year, Washington state's Supreme Court ruled that the state's constitution was violated when three Jehovah's Witness children were forced to recite the pledge.

The state constitution provides that: “Absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship, shall be guaranteed to every individual, and no one shall be molested or be disturbed in person or property on account of religion …”

At the time of the Seattle incident, school-district spokesman Latham implied that Bobrik was kicked out of class for being “disrespectful.” Latham said that school policy allows students to refrain from reciting the pledge, but that they must “remain respectfully silent.”

Johnson said that the teacher has maintained that Bobrik was removed from class not because of his religious beliefs, but because he was disrespectful.

“There was nothing, however, entered into Jim's school record about that,” Johnson said. “I have spoken with the principal several times, and at no point did anyone say Jim was disrespectful.”

Bobrik claims in his suit that he was singled out and humiliated for his religious convictions and demands an unspecified amount in damages.