A Belfast Area High School student was sent to the principal’s office Friday when he didn’t stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance with his classmates, an incident that prompted action by the superintendent and intervention from a national group that supports atheists.

School officials said they believe the student responded to recent efforts by South Portland High School students to inform their classmates that, under state and federal laws, they cannot be forced to stand and recite the pledge.

The unnamed student – a junior who declined to be interviewed for this story – remained silent and seated at his desk while his classmates stood to say the pledge, according to a news release from the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C.

The student didn’t want to say the pledge, for personal and religious reasons, including his objection to the idea that the nation is “under God,” said the association’s lawyers, who said the student contacted them for assistance.

When the teacher sent him to the principal’s office, the student tried to explain his constitutional right to not participate, but administrators said that standing for the pledge was mandatory and that failure to do so would have serious consequences, the lawyers said.

The association emailed a letter to Belfast school officials Monday, reminding them that standing for and reciting the pledge are optional under federal law. The association demanded that faculty and students be advised of the law and follow it.

“The right of students to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance was settled long ago by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Niose, director of the association’s legal center. “Remaining seated for the pledge is part of public school students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

The association, which has 415,000 members nationally, advocates for “progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers,” according to its website. The association’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request to clarify some aspects of its news release.

The association noted the recent controversy at South Portland High, where senior class President Lily SanGiovanni upset some faculty and community members when she added “if you’d like to” to her daily invitation to say the pledge. SanGiovanni dropped the added words at her principal’s request, but she and her friends plan to formally request the change before the faculty leadership team on March 19.

Brian Carpenter, superintendent of Regional School Unit 20, offered a slightly different version of what happened Friday at Belfast Area High School.

“The request was (that he) at least stand and show respect but he doesn’t have to say the pledge,” Carpenter said Monday.

Carpenter acknowledged that federal law prohibits teachers from forcing students to stand for the pledge. He said he would send an email to Belfast High’s faculty reminding them of state and federal laws related to the pledge.

“It’s such a minuscule point,” Carpenter said. “There are more important issues in the world today. We’ll address this at the school level. I will remind staff that they are to abide by the letter of the law.”

Carpenter said Friday’s incident involved only one student, who appeared to be a “copycat” of the South Portland students. Carpenter had no details about the student’s interactions with his teacher or Principal Stephen Fitzpatrick, who wasn’t at work on Monday, Carpenter said.

Carpenter said he didn’t know whether the student stood for the pledge on Monday, but no pledge-related incidents were reported to his office. In the future, he said, the student will be allowed to sit and be silent during the pledge.

“As much as I might disagree,” Carpenter said, “that’s why (soldiers fought and) gave their lives, so he can do that.”

Kelley Bouchard can be reached at 791-6328 or at:

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