Teacher tosses Seattle student out of class for failing to make pledge to flag

Thursday, March 12, 1998

After getting kicked out of class for not pledging allegiance to the flag, a 13-year-old in Seattle has demanded the school district either create a program educating teachers and students about First Amendment rights or face a lawsuit.

Jim Bobrik, a Jehovah's Witness and a student at Sylvester Middle School, sent a letter to the Highline School District recently claiming his religious-liberty rights were infringed when his science teacher expelled him from class in February for not pledging allegiance to the flag. The science teacher also warned Bobrik not to “disrespect” the flag again.

Though the school district has a policy stating students do not have to recite the pledge, Bobrik's claim calls for a districtwide program to educate both teachers and students about First Amendment rights and discipline those who violate those rights.

If the school district does not implement the program, Brady R. Johnson, Bobrik's lawyer, said his client plans to sue.

“In effect, Jim was told by an authority figure that his religious beliefs were irrelevant,” Johnson said. “Jim stood silently and did not recite the pledge. He was told by his teacher [Michael Sienkiwich] to recite the pledge. When Jim told him he did not have to, the teacher ordered him out of class where he stood in the rain for 15 minutes. And then upon returning to class the teacher threatened him with further punishment should he refuse to say the oath again.”

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington's high court have ruled that government may not require children to salute the flag in violation of their religious scruples.

In 1943 the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. Barnette that a Jehovah's Witness student did not have to recite the pledge. Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority, noted that: “We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce consent.”

Jackson concluded: “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.”

Washington's high court has also ruled that the state's constitution is subverted when school children are forced to say the pledge of allegiance.

Johnson said the school district has not offered an apology to Bobrik or given any indication it plans to implement the educational program.

“As far as we know there is a classroom of students who believe they will penalized for not reciting the pledge,” Johnson said. “I think the education system needs to be reminded from time to time about our fundamental rights.

“It is dangerous for a teacher to tell the students that they must recite the pledge even if it violates their religious beliefs—such a statement conveys a false message. Some of those students may one day become teachers, and I would hate to see them pass that false message on to others.”

Nick Latham, district spokesman, said that an attorney has been hired to investigate the sitution.

“Our review of the incident to this point indicates that there are conflicting stories between the teacher and the student regarding the student's behavior during the plede,” he said. “The district has a policy that states students do not have to recite the pledge, but that they should remain respectfully silent. We respect religious freedom in this district.”

The school district has 60 days to determine whether to answer Bobrik's claim.