Patriotic ferment: California teen's grades docked over Pledge of Allegiance

Leilani Thomas, a native American student, saw her grade lowered for sitting through the Pledge of Allegiance at school. The incident is the latest in a widening debate over how to express patriotism in America.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Fifth graders say the pledge of allegiance during their graduation ceremony at Leviton Dual Language Elementary School, on June 19, 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island.

Leilani Thomas, a native American student in California, has been refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance since she was in second grade. But for the first time for Leilani, now a teenager attending a Lower Lake High School, that stand has cost her academically.

Leilani said that her teacher, displeased by her refusal – and that of one of her friends – to take the pledge, docked her participation grade for not standing during the daily ceremony.

Leilani's protest – and punishment – has particular resonance now as it comes at a time when pro-athletes and politicians are challenging cultural traditions about how Americans express their patriotism. For some, it means loving your country enough to expose its problems. In recent weeks, professional, college, and some high school football athletes have joined San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in refusing to stand for the national anthem at football games, in support of Black Lives Matters and other causes.

In Worcester, Mass., a high school junior was told by his football coach that he would be suspended for one game if he didn't stand during the national anthem. School officials quickly backed the student, not the coach's, position. 

The US Pledge of Allegiance has a long and complex history. During the global nationalist movements of the 19th century, expressions of patriotism and allegiance to one's nation of origin became increasingly popular across the Europe and the United States. The original Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist minister, in 1892. Schoolchildren all over the country still recite Bellamy's pledge to this day, with modifications, according to KPCC public radio in Los Angeles.

Until 1943, students could face expulsion for not reciting the pledge. That changed when Jehovah's Witnesses won West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in the US Supreme Court, when the court ruled that students could not be forced to make the pledge. While the initial lawsuit was based on US Constitution's right of freedom of religion (Jehovah's Witnesses are religiously forbidden from saluting or pledging to symbols), the final ruling was based on First Amendment right of freedom of speech, allowing anyone with any objection to pledging allegiance, religious or otherwise, to refuse without consequence.

That brings us back to Leilani, more than 70 years after the Supreme Court ruling. 

“[My teacher] told me I was being disrespectful, and I was pretty mad,” Leilani told KXTV in Sacramento, Calif. “She was being disrespectful to me also, saying I was making bad choices, and I don’t have the choice to sit during the pledge.”

Leilani says that she has refused to say the pledge because of her native American background. Native Americans have had a long history of being treated poorly by the United States government.

“My mom and my dad brought up what it [the pledge] meant to us and our people,” Leilani told KXTV. “So I just started sitting down.”

Leilani's stand began years before the protest sparked by NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. But she's not alone. Some politicians, including Missouri state senator, Democrat Jamilah Nasheed, have refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in recent days.

"I decided to not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance today to stand in solidarity with the cause of injustice that Colin Kaepernick has shined a bright light upon. I am not anti-America, and in fact, it is because I love this country that I take this stand," Senator Nasheed told The Root.

Not everyone supports her sentiments, however, and there has been a significant backlash against the NFL players in particular. Among the detractors is Senator Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who tweeted a condemnation of the protesting NFL players on Monday:

With many people have spoken out passionately for – or against – the protesters, others wonder if these kinds of patriotic ceremonies still hold relevance.

The Pledge of Allegiance has been questioned and revised almost since it was first introduced in 1892. There have been multiple appeals, for instance, to remove the "under God" portion of the pledge, as the Monitor has previously reported. The reference to God itself was a 1954 addition as part of the effort to stop the spread of communism, and was not included in the original pledge. Some have made the claim over the years that these kinds of ceremonies, largely created by white men, do not reflect the diverse America that exists today.

For Donna Becnel, superintendent of Leilani's school district, the choice of whether or not to participate in the pledge is up to the students, and no one else.

"Students here have First Amendment rights, and they do not lose that when they come to school," Ms. Becnel told KXTV, expressing her support for the Leilani and her friend.

Both students were allowed to transfer to another class.

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