Teacher did not violate student’s religious-liberty rights, attorneys say

Wednesday, July 29, 1998

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A suburban Seattle middle school teacher who removed a student from class for refusing to salute or pledge allegiance to the flag did not violate the student's religious-liberty rights, the district's lawyers maintain.


In April, Jim Bobrik, a student at Sylvester Middle School near Seattle, brought a federal suit against the Highline School District alleging his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion was subverted when his science teacher tossed him out of class in February for failure to pay homage to the flag. Bobrik, a Jehovah's Witness, maintained in his lawsuit that his religious beliefs require him to honor God – not idols and symbols.


Jehovah's Witnesses' objections to saluting and pledging allegiance to the flag are based on Exodus 20:4-5: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in earth beneath, or that is in water under the earth; thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”


Before taking legal action, Bobrik's Seattle attorney requested that the school district apologize for the teacher's behavior and set up a program to help the district's teachers and students better understand First Amendment rights.


The school district, however, has never apologized or questioned the actions of Michael Sienkiwich, Bobrik's science teacher. Instead, in legal papers filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, the school district's attorneys argued that Bobrik was removed from class for reasons other than his religious objections.


“Plaintiffs damages, if any, were the result of the negligence, actions or fault of plaintiffs and damages should be denied or reduced accordingly,” the school district's lawyers argued in their answer to Bobrik's suit. The attorneys, from a Seattle law firm, also suggested that the science teacher did not know of Bobrik's religious beliefs.


The district's answer, however, does not state why Bobrik was removed from class.


Brady R. Johnson, Bobrik's attorney, said that the district's attorneys or spokespersons also have not said why Seinkiwich told Bobrik to leave the classroom.


“They have been mumbling that it is his fault for some time, but have never stated what it is he did,” Johnson said. “The district has suggested there was a discipline issue – that he was put outside not for refusing to salute the flag, but for other disciplinary reasons. However, he was never written up or sent to the principal's office.”


Johnson said instead actions such as Bobrik's were and have been protected by the First Amendment, as well as Washington's constitution and judiciary, for years.


In 1942, the West Virginia Legislature created a law requiring classroom instruction in “Americanism” including a daily pledge of allegiance. Students who shunned the flag were subject to expulsion. Jehovah's Witness parents and students objected to the government-imposed pledge requirement and sued the state. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 invalidated the state law on grounds that it ran afoul of the First Amendment.


“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,” wrote Justice Robert Jackson in Board of Education v. Barnette.


Johnson called the district's suggestion that the teacher was unaware of Bobrik's religious beliefs irrelevant.


“The claim that no one had knowledge of Jim's religious beliefs is no argument and makes no difference,” Johnson said. “The Constitution does not require someone to stand up and profess their religious beliefs.”


Attorneys for the school district would not take calls regarding the suit. Nick Latham, district spokesman, however, said that the lawsuit has nothing do with religion, but centered on respect.


“Based on what I have been told, it is a question of respecting his teacher and not freedom of religion rights,” Latham said.


The school district has a policy that states: “Students not reciting the pledge of allegiance are required to maintain a respectful silence and may remain seated.”


A trial date has been set for March, unless Bobrik and the district are able to reach a settlement.