Emily Proctor & Madison Miazek
Division 1, News Writing
Every morning Plymouth senior Clay Martin heads down to the Plymouth office to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This has been a ritual for Martin since his sophomore year. However, following the fatal shootings at Pulse Night Club in Orlando last June and his response to them, administration imposed restrictions on Martin’s regular routine.
The Monday following the slaughter of 49 people, Martin went down the office to recite the Pledge, as usual. Before he did so, he asked for a moment of silence from students and staff members and he read a quote from former president Ronald Reagan that he found inspirational and timely. He concluded by saying, “May God bless the United States and may God bless you all.”
This wasn’t the first time Martin said something along those lines. “I do a lot of those kind of speeches like mainly on Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, just kind of as a little salute to the people overseas,” Martin said. “I would say something like, ‘God bless our veterans’ and ‘God bless America.’”
The next day Martin went down to say the Pledge once again, but beforehand, Plymouth Principal Cheri Steckel pulled him aside. “Ms.Steckel talked to me in her office and said, ‘I really enjoyed your speech,’ and then said, ‘We don’t want to say, ‘May God bless you all,’ because not everyone is Christian.’”
Martin respected Steckel’s reasoning. However, it was later brought to his attention that the reason Steckel pulled him aside was because two Plymouth teachers reportedly complained about his remarks over the PA system the day prior.
“When I say [God bless America] I don’t think of religion, ever,” Martin said. “I think of it more as an America type thing.”
On Nov, 11, Veterans’ Day, Martin prepared to say the Pledge once more, when Steckel took him aside yet again and said, “Just remember, no ‘God bless America.’”
Martin said this struck him as “kind of interesting,” adding, “It makes me sad that it’s kind of what our society has become, the opinions of two people, just because they didn’t necessarily agree with me, that they can dictate what I can and can’t say.”
Not everyone agrees that the district can, indeed, legally restrict Martin’s speech in this instance.
The Perspective contacted the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that protects freedom of the press for student journalists, and spoke to Frank LoMonte. LoMonte, an attorney, said, “If the school has tolerated other personal messages from students in the past–for example, if they’d be okay with a student saying ‘Have a nice day’ or ‘Go Cubs’ or whatever–then the school can’t forbid only religious messages while allowing other forms of personal message.”
Martin, who is confined to a wheelchair, has made it a point to say, “Please stand if you are able” each morning before the Pledge as well as “Thank you, have a nice day,” afterward. Thus, according to LoMonte, Martin has had freedom to express personal messages over the PA system in the past, and therefore his saying “God bless America” cannot be restricted by administrators.
Additionally, The Perspective reached out to P-CCS school officials as well as Steckel for comment. Steckel declined to speak on the issue. She directed The Perspective to policies and bylaws 7510, 7510A, 9700, 8800 and 8220. Policy 7510 pertains to the use of school facilities while 9700 pertains to relations with special interest groups.
8800 and 8220 include information on religious and patriotic ceremonies and observances. 8800 says, “District and board members don’t have the ability to promote any religion.” Specific guidelines regarding administrative roles stated in policy 8220 provided by Steckel can be found on online at the-perspective.org.
Policy 8220, which is only directly accessible by administrators, states, “Religious readings or exercises shall not be a part of opening, closing, or any other exercise for any school day.”
According to the Alliance Defending Freedom website, “Schools can: Designate a time at graduation, sporting events, or other school events for a student to speak on a matter of his or he own choosing, as long as neutral criteria is used to select the student speaker (i.e. valedictorian, class president, or randomly selected from a list of eligible students), and no school staff are involved or review the speech.” This would appear to be in direct contrast to policy 8220, which says that, “No announcement shall be read which has not been approved by the principal.”
State Senator Patrick Colbeck directed The Perspective to the ADF website when he was asked to respond.
Colbeck added, “In general, we believe this [case involving Martin and the Pledge] would be treated as a free speech issue, and unless a student is directed by faculty to say something, they should ordinarily be free to say something like this [“God bless America”]. Faculty, though, would not be allowed to direct a student to say something like this, it must be something the student is choosing to freely say.”
As SPLC’s LoMonte pointed out, if the district decides that they may prohibit Martin from saying, “God bless America” after the Pledge, they in turn should be prohibiting him from saying personal messages like, “Have a nice day.”
LoMonte added, “They probably have no duty to open up the morning announcements for the free speech of the student presenter, but once they have allowed students to deliver individualized personal messages, they can’t selectively discriminate against only the religious messages.”
The district chose not to comment.
The teachers’ complaints against Martin had to do with him bringing religion into his message, however, the Pledge of Allegiance itself clearly states “One nation, under God,” which could also be interpreted as religion-affiliated.
Martin opted not to reveal the identities of those who complained.
Several teachers were asked to weigh in on the legality and/or appropriateness of Martin’s remarks.
Plymouth social studies teacher Michael Ziolkowski said, “For the sake of sanity and clarity and camaraderie, I often think it’s good to leave it [religion] as a personal matter.” Ziolkowski added that “under God” was not originally a part of the first Pledge of Allegiance and was added during the ‘50s and ‘60s as a part of the Cold War era.
All in all, Martin finds the situation discouraging. A classmate told him one critic of his remarks went so far as to suggest that his comments could be considered anti-Muslim.
Martin said, “I like to say ‘God bless America’ and I like to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day and it makes me sad that any time I try to say something overtly patriotic, I am automatically put in that category.”