The Brownsville Area School District in Fayette County is embroiled in a controversy involving the Pledge of Allegiance.
The catalyst is a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly punished by school officials on several occasions for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. Since these punishments were in violation of the girl's constitutional protection of free speech, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit against the district and three officials in April on behalf of the student, identified only as N.B., and through her mother, Carolyn Raja, that seeks monetary damages.
At a recent board meeting, a motion to settle the lawsuit drew a two-hour long public comment session with veterans, district employees and residents urging the school board to oppose the settlement.
The board was presented with the motion to settle the suit for a total payment of $16,000, with $5,000 to be paid by the district and $11,000 of the payment to be paid by the district's insurance carrier, School Claims Service. Directors Brashear, Andy Assad, Stella Broadwater, John Harvey, Jeff Bayne, Ron Dellarose, Nena Kaminsky and Cheryl Terravecchia all opposed the motion. Director Andy Dorsey was absent from the meeting.
We can surely understand why this case has stirred such a passionate response. For those veterans who have fought for our country -- or those who have lost friends and loved ones in the military -- the visceral reaction is completely understandable.
However, while we respect the opinions of the veterans who spoke out at the meeting and will be forever grateful for their service on our behalf, the decision simply can't be allowed to stand.
Despite what we or anyone else feels or thinks, forcing someone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance is against the law. The issue was settled back in 1943 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling against the West Virginia State Board of Education. The suit had been brought by members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who said reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was against their religion.
In his majority opinion for the court, Justice Robert Jackson wrote, "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." In fact, the court felt so strongly about the ruling that it was released on Flag Day.
Certainly, Justice Jackson's opinion makes sense. In the end, if this country is about all freedom, then no one should be forced to recite anything.
So, while we join with the veterans and others who spoke at the meeting in wishing that everyone would recite Pledge of Allegiance, there's no legal way to make it mandatory.
And since compelling someone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance is illegal, if the district rejects the settlement they face the very real possibility that they will go to court -- and lose.
This would be disastrous for the district, which could very well lose its insurance and have to bear the entire cost of the lawsuit on its own.
Fees from attorneys and damages, certain to be awarded to the defendants, could run well into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Residents of the district, which already faces considerable financial challenges, could find their taxes increased by tenfold or more.
The very existence of the district could be at stake. It's possible the state would be forced to come in and take over the district.
Under that scenario, district taxpayers would lose all control over their schools. That simply can't be allowed to happen.
Considering the alternative is the district paying $5,000 and complying with the law, one would hope that cooler heads on the school board will prevail.
To that end, we urge the veterans and others, who have so passionately spoken out on this issue, to not force the district into such a destructive decision.
Fortunately, the judge presiding over the lawsuit has given the district time to reconsider its decision. Judge Mark R. Hornak granted an extension to July 1 for district officials to file an answer to the suit.
Let's hope that some sort of settlement can be worked out. The consequences for the school district are simply too severe to do otherwise.
Let's also hope that the veterans involved in this controversy will remember that they fought for the freedom of all citizens of this country not just for those who agree with their opinions.
-- From the (Uniontown) Herald-Standard.