Standing 5 feet tall in checkered Vans, 14-year-old Theodore Pugh is an unimposing First Amendment warrior.
But the freshman at Leonardtown High School in St. Mary's County, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and his principal, yesterday taught his teachers a lesson in free speech and reinforced his right to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school.
Theodore became upset this year when, he said, a friend in his homeroom was "reprimanded" by the teacher for remaining seated during the pledge. The teacher, according to Theodore, said that she had a brother in the military in the Middle East and that it was disrespectful to his sacrifice not to stand.
"I thought, 'We have to research this,' " said Theodore, an honor roll student.
Without telling his principal, Theodore -- with help from his father -- wrote to several First Amendment organizations, including the ACLU of Maryland, to find out what rights students have. As it happened, the ACLU was already on the case. At least four students in three public school systems -- St. Mary's, Baltimore and Prince George's counties -- had reported being forced to either stand or say the pledge although they wanted to abstain, said ACLU of Maryland lawyer Richard Griffiths.
"It was a succession of all of these pledge things from around the state that made us stop and say maybe we should try to get everybody on the same page about what the law says," Griffiths said. So the ACLU contacted school system superintendents in every county in Maryland, as well as the state Department of Education.
After receiving a letter from the ACLU, Leonardtown High School Principal Scott Smith said he wanted to make sure the rules were clear to teachers.
"We cannot require a student to stand during the pledge. We cannot require a student to leave the room during the pledge," he told his staff during a meeting yesterday, adding that students must remain "respectfully silent" during the pledge.
Staff members lobbed several questions at Smith:
"Why can we not respectfully ask them to leave the room?"
What if the sitting starts to "spread to other kids and create a rebellion?"
"Can we tell them how we feel?"
Smith replied that students would feel singled out if told to leave the room, that he felt the novelty of sitting during the pledge would probably wear off, and that it's not the job of teachers to proselytize to students.
Disputes over the pledge periodically surface in school systems across the country. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to notify parents if students abstain from the pledge was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case last year brought by a California atheist who objected to his daughter's saying the pledge because it contained the words "under God." The Supreme Court didn't address the constitutionality of the issue but ruled that the man lacked legal standing to file suit on his daughter's behalf because he didn't have full custody of the child.
Claudette Smith of Essex, Md., said her two children in the Baltimore County school system have been told they have to either stand or recite the pledge. Her daughter, an 11th-grader at Chesapeake High School, was told by three separate teachers that she was being disrespectful by remaining seated during the pledge.
"I just think that the schools and their staffs, as well as their students, should be educated in the fact that they don't have to stand . . . if they don't want to, and it's really nobody's business why," Smith said.
For Theodore Pugh, not saying the Pledge of Allegiance was less a political statement and more an expression of rights, he said.
And besides upholding his classmates' rights, his pledge protest worked well for him, too.
"My friends were very impressed with me," he said.