High School Students Punished for Not Saying “Under God” When Leading Pledge of Allegiance Over Loudspeakers

I’ve written a lot of posts about young atheists who either don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, or omit the words “Under God” when they do, or remain seated during its recitation.

Just about every story goes the same way: The student does one of those things and gets in trouble, an atheist group sends the school a letter reminding them the dissent is perfectly legal, and the school apologizes.

Not this time.

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At Merrill F. West High School in Tracy, California, students in Shauna Baker’s speech and debate class are tasked to read announcements and say the Pledge over the loudspeaker in the morning.

Adrianna Teboe didn’t didn’t say “Under God” when it was her turn. She was marked down as a result.

Derek Giardina didn’t say “Under God” when it was his turn. He’s now failing the class.

“[Baker] had told me, if we don’t say the pledge properly, we’ll get suspended and kicked out of the class,” he said.

Teboe… said the issue should not be controversial.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous that they are punishing us for sticking up for what we believe in,” she said. “What better way to represent West High or America than to show that we have the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.”

Unbelievable.

School officials defend Baker’s actions in two ways. First, they say there’s a difference between saying the Pledge in class (when atheists can do whatever they want) and leading the Pledge for the whole school:

“When you’re leading the pledge, you’re representing the school,” Strube said in an interview Monday. “I would say it’s not appropriate to leave it out when you are leading it for 2,000 people.”

They also say that Baker offered an alternative assignment to the students ahead of time and neither accepted… though Derek Giardina had a reason for that:

“I felt like she wouldn’t grade me properly,” he said, adding that reading the announcements was a more objective way to earn a good grade.

What I don’t understand is what lesson the school officials are hoping to teach the students with these punishments.

Don’t do what you feel is right?

Obey authority at all costs?

Don’t think for yourselves?

We don’t care what your religious beliefs are; when you’re at this school, you’re going to believe in God?

Whatever it is, the punishments don’t fit the “crime.” The students are doing nothing wrong. Even if they don’t say “Under God” over the loudspeaker, nothing is preventing individual students from saying it on their own if they want to. (What, would it be uncomfortable saying the Pledge differently? Welcome to our world.)

By the way, Derek Giardina led the Pledge earlier this week. He didn’t say “Under God.” He was punished with 20 minutes in detention.

His family is consulting with the ACLU about possible next steps. (Hey, American Humanist Association, you may want to send a letter to the district, too.)

I reached out to both Derek and Adrianna to find out if they have the support of their classmates and if there’s anything we can do for them; I’ll post an update if/when I hear back.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.