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A black student refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance — challenging Texas law requiring it

India Landry was temporarily expelled from her Houston high school in 2017 for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. (Video: KPRC)

Last October, then-17-year-old India Landry was in the principal’s office of her Texas high school when the school intercom crackled. It was time for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Her classmates stood nearly in unison all over Windfern High School, outside Houston. But Landry stayed seated and did not recite it. Principal Martha Strother, according to court filings, immediately took action. “Well, you’re kicked outta here,” she told Landry.

The school secretary keyed on the symbolism of the act by Landry, who is black.

“This isn’t the NFL,” she said, the filing shows, connecting Landry’s actions to protests led by former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Landry was expelled, but then was allowed back into school days later, court filings show.

A long legal battle ensued between Landry, now 18, and school district officials. The suit was filed by Landry’s mother, Kizzy Landry, who claimed the school violated constitutional protections of free speech, due process and equal protection.

Now, the Texas attorney general has intervened in the federal case and defended a Texas law that Landry has challenged as unconstitutional. It requires students to recite the pledge, or get a parent’s or guardian’s permission if they wish to opt out.

“Requiring the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day has the laudable result of fostering respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday. Twenty-six other states have similar statutes, Paxton said.

His comment included a not-so-subtle nod to a popular Republican attack on the NFL protests echoed by President Trump — that they disrespect the U.S. flag and, by extension, U.S. troops and veterans.

Landry’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Houston ACLU chapter, said the conversation around the protests and political firestorm that ensued is important context.

Ten days before Landry refused to stand and recite the pledge, Trump suggested that NFL owners should fire players who kneel. It was one of the more prominent moments of the debate around the protests.

“Before this case, never one time did I hear of any school forcing kids to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance,” Kallinen told The Washington Post on Wednesday, citing thousands of requests for assistance in his career. “Then, in two weeks, I had three calls."

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Kallinen described the decision and wording of Paxton’s announcement as politically motivated to galvanize conservative voters ahead of the November elections.

A spokeswoman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 54 percent of likely voters in Texas “disapprove” of the NFL protests, the Texas Tribune reported.

Kallinen declined to make Landry available for an interview, citing the ongoing litigation, but said her actions were partly inspired by Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality. She had refused to stand for the pledge more than 200 times, court filings show.

Last spring, Landry’s refusal prompted a teacher to send her out of class, and another sent her to the principal’s office. Attorneys for the school district did not immediately return calls for comment.

“I felt the flag doesn’t represent what it stands for, liberty and justice for all, and I don’t feel what is going on in the country, so it was my choice to remain seated, silently. It was a silent protest,” Landry told NBC Houston in July.

That came after the judge denied requests from the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District to dismiss the case.

According to the lawsuit, the school’s assistant principal told India that she “was going to stand for the pledge like the other African American in her class.” Principal Strother also suggested that Landry write about black justice issues instead of refusing to stand.

That, and connections to the NFL protests made by school officials, led Judge Keith P. Ellison of the Southern Texas District Court to allow claims of equal protection violations to move forward.

Those comments “signal that [school officials] view India’s choice to remain seated for the pledge as one that is specifically linked to India’s race and the treatment of people of her race,” Ellison wrote in his July ruling.

In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that students couldn’t be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The plaintiffs in that case were Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion forbids them from saying the pledge.

Cleve Wootson contributed to this report.

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