The ACLU has ordered a New Jersey school to cease and desist asking its students to say “God bless America” after their morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, saying the practice is unconstitutional.
The tradition of saying “God bless America” was started by two kindergarten teachers at Glenview Elementary School after the terrorist attacks on September 11, in order to “show support to first responders and victims,” according to the Courier-Post. Neither of the teachers who began the practice even work at the school any longer, but the habit of adding “God bless America” onto the end of the Pledge of Allegiance has since become an ingrained part of school tradition, simply a part of the school’s culture. Furthermore, Principal Sam Sassano says the school never formally required its students to utter the religious phrase.
But in a letter dated December 30, 2015, Ed Barocas, the legal director of the ACLU New Jersey chapter, demanded that the phrase be stopped, saying that the practice was unconstitutional.
Requiring students to say “God bless America” is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which “prohibits the government not only from favoring one religion over another, but also from promoting religion over non-religion,” according to ACLU’s letter to the school’s lawyer, Joseph Betley.
Avoiding the appearance of official endorsement of religion, the ACLU leader wrote, is especially important when dealing with children of impressionable ages, such as in an elementary school environment.
“The greatest care must be taken to avoid the appearance of governmental endorsement in schools, especially elementary schools, given the impressionable age of the children under the school’s care and authority.”
The ACLU noted that there is legal precedent for their insistence that “God bless America” be removed from the school’s daily ritual, referencing that the U.S. Supreme Court previously rejected the once-common practice of invoking God’s blessing in school in a 1962 ruling, when, as the letter noted, “the Court halted a school district’s practice of students’ acknowledging God and asking God’s ‘blessings on us, our parents, our teachers and our Country’ immediately following recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Principal Sassano addressed the parents in his school, stating that the school has always been mindful of the line which separates church and state, but that “it has been our view that the practice is fundamentally patriotic in nature and does not invoke or advance any religious message, despite the specific reference to God’s blessing.”
However, his letter also acknowledged that, at the very least, there is some ambivalence to whether or not saying “God bless America” should be allowed.
“Whether the practice of having the students say ‘God bless America’ at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance is more akin to religious prayer or simply a manifestation of patriotism has no clear cut legal answer.”
Despite that, Sassano says that he will not prevent any of his approximately 265 students from saying the phrase, but acknowledges that because of a potentially costly legal battle over the religious phrase, the school will “explore alternative methods of honoring the victims and first responders of the 9/11 tragedy.”
And it seems many parents within the school are disappointed, but understand the predicament the principal finds himself in. Many parents, Sassano says, have told him that they would instruct their children themselves to continue saying “God bless America” after the Pledge of Allegiance.
Giovanna Giumarello, who has a son at Glenview, cited mentions of God throughout American culture. “It’s on our money: ‘In God We Trust.’ Isn’t the person who complained out there spending that money?”
Hector Diaz, stepfather of a Glenview student, said he believes there are “too many rules and regulations” that impact the country in a negative manner. “God bless America, God bless Africa, God bless South America and Europe… that’s what we should be saying,” he said.
As for Ed Barocas of the ACLU, he holds firm to the claim that requiring students to say “God bless America” is unconstitutional, adding that only parents have the right to guide their child’s religious instruction. “This was not students’ speech, this was a daily recitation at an official school assembly led by the school officials,” he said, noting that the ACLU also defends people on the other side of the religious speech issue, as well.
Because of that, if parents are the ones encouraging their children to continue to say “God bless America” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, they are well within their legal rights to do.
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