CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555; email@example.com
DAMASCUS, MD - Despite free speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights, state law, and in the Montgomery County School System's Regulations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland once again is having to take action on behalf of a student in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) who was repeatedly harassed and intimidated by teachers and an assistant principal for declining to stand while the Pledge of Allegiance (Pledge) is recited. This incident is the fourth time the ACLU has contacted Montgomery County Public Schools concerning students' rights to decline to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance since 2005, and the fifth such occurrence reported to us from Montgomery County in the same time period.
"In the United States, we do not force people to express allegiance, we inspire it," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "The law is crystal clear that a public school cannot embarrass or harass a student for maintaining a respectful silence during the Pledge of Allegiance. What is not clear is why teachers and school officials in Montgomery County have repeatedly violated students' rights by seeking to compel recitation of the Pledge."
Enidris Siurano-Rodriguez, a 10th grader, is an honor roll student and talented violinist. Since she was in the seventh grade, she has chosen to sit quietly during the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, as a way of showing her disagreement with United States government policies towards Puerto Rico. She did so, without incident, until this year.
Beginning in February, Enidris' first period teacher, Deanna Jennings, who teaches Honors Biology, started directing her to stand each morning when the Pledge was recited. Enidris complied, not by choice, but only because she was specifically directed to do so by her teacher. On April 4, Enidris was sent to the Principal's office where Assistant Principal Karen Rose improperly demanded to know why she persisted in sitting during the Pledge. Enidris explained that her actions stemmed from her feelings about United States government policies towards Puerto Rico, where her family is from. Rose belittled Enidris' reasoning and background, and concluded by stating that while Enidris did not need to recite the Pledge, she needed to stand while it was said. Rose also called Enidris's mother, and said that if Enidris persisted in sitting during the Pledge, she would be removed from class while it was recited. The next day, Jennings again directed Enidris to stand for the Pledge. Enidris silently remained seated. Afterwards, the student was harassed by yet another teacher, Eric Brenneman, who told her he had had students removed from his class for the same reason.
In recent years, the ACLU of Maryland has received multiple complaints from students in Montgomery County Public Schools who have been harassed for refusing to recite the Pledge. In 2010, the ACLU took action on behalf of a thirteen-year-old at Roberto Clemente Middle School whose teacher on different occasions demanded that she stand for the Pledge, instead of sitting quietly, and then ordered her to leave the classroom, threatened to give her detention, and called a school security officer to remove her from class. In addition, we heard from families in 2008, 2010, and 2012 reporting similar harassment of their children at Takoma Park Middle School, Northwood High School, Rolling Terrace Elementary School, and Gaithersburg High School, though each of these cases was resolved by the families' own communications with higher level school officials. Indeed, over the last decade we have received more complaints about this issue from Montgomery County than any other jurisdiction in the state.
The right of a student to refrain from participating during the Pledge has been settled law since 1943, when the Supreme Court held that students could not be forced to salute the flag. As the Court put it then, "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." Here in Maryland, the State Court of Appeals, in 1971, struck down as unconstitutional a state law that required students to salute the flag unless they had a religious objection to doing so. Maryland law now explicitly allows "any student or teacher who wishes to be excused" to refrain from participating in the recitation of the Pledge.
In addition, the Montgomery County school system Regulation JFA-RA, § IV.H.2(a) explicitly acknowledges Enidris' right to act as she did, providing that "Students have a right to not be compelled to participate in patriotic exercises, or be penalized or embarrassed for failure to participate."
In a letter sent on April 9 to the County Schools Superintendent, the County School Board, and officials at Damascus High School, the ACLU details why what was done to the student was wrong, and seeks meetings with the Superintendent and high school to discuss what steps will be taken to ensure that violations do not keep recurring.