Group of students during the pledge of allegiance - some sitting, some standing
Some students chose to not say the Pledge of Allegiance (Photo Credit)

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression and shouldn’t be forced to participate in any rituals that go against their personal beliefs. For students in public schools, this includes the right to keep silent or sit down during the Pledge of Allegiance or national anthem.

Your Constitutional Right to Not Say the Pledge of Allegiance

In 1943, the United States Supreme Court confirmed that students in public schools have a right to not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. At the time, the West Virginia Board of Education required all public school teachers and students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Two students, Gathie and Marie Barnett, refused to participate, stating that it violated their personal beliefs and religion, and were expelled. They brought a suit, along with other students who had refused, which finally ended up at the US Supreme Court. In a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to compel students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Since then, the rights of students have been clarified further. Federal courts have decided that not only can you keep quiet during the pledge, but you can also sit down or raise your fist in protest, as long as you are not disrupting others.

However, many teachers and school administrators either don’t understand the law or still feel that it is okay to force students to participate. In recent years, students have been suspended or had their grades lowered for not saying the pledge. Teachers have also intimidated students and even physically forced them into standing for the pledge. These attempts to punish or force students into saying the Pledge of Allegiance are illegal and unconstitutional.

Parental Permission Required for Some Students

Currently, there are three states, Florida, Texas, and Utah, that require students to have permission from their parents in order to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance. This extra requirement violates the right of young people to make decisions about their own beliefs. Parents may withhold their permission for a number of reasons or students may decide they don’t want to say the pledge before they are able to contact their parents.

Unfortunately, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided that requiring parental permission in order opt out of the pledge does not violate the rights of young people. In Frazier v. Winn (2009), the Court concluded that “the state’s interest in recognizing and protecting the rights of parents on some educational issues is sufficient to justify the restriction of some students’ freedom of speech.”

Protesting the National Anthem

High school football players kneel during national anthem
High school students kneeling during the national anthem before a football game (Photo Credit)

Students also have the right to not participate in the national anthem. This means you can sit, kneel, turn your back, or raise your fist during the ceremony. Because of the public nature of the game, you may still receive intimidation from the public, or even death threats, as some students have, but you cannot be kicked off your team, ejected from a game, suspended, or otherwise punished for protesting the national anthem. However, this right is only protected if you are at a school-sponsored game or event. If you are part of team not associated with your school, you can legally be removed, or even have your whole season canceled.

What You Can Do

  1. Become informed about your rights. If you are asked to participate in either the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem, state that you have a constitutional right to not participate. You can refer the person questioning you to the following cases:
  2. Let others know if you are pressured in any way. You can start by letting the principal or superintendent know, but you should also feel comfortable contacting your local media. You can also contact us, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union. We will help you fight for your rights.
  3. Start a club that advocates for student rights. You can start a NYRA Chapter or other club that works toward informing students of their rights in school. One such group of students in Madison, Wisconsin got the school board to agree to have the the following statement read before the pledge is recited so that students are informed about their rights. “We live in a nation of freedom. Participation in the pledge (or anthem) is voluntary. Those who wish to participate may stand; others may remain seated.”