A Patriotic Right to Say 'God' in the Classroom?

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, more of America's public schools are invoking the name of God in their patriotic displays. However, signs featuring the slogan "God Bless America" and recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance that contain the phrase "one nation, under God" may be divisive and degrading, according to some civil rights groups.

The intermingling of patriotism and religion in recent weeks has caused confusion about what type of speech is permissible in public schools, said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

After all, he noted, nobody expected to see members of Congress singing "God Bless America" on the staircase of the nation's Capitol.

According to Sekulow, the ACLJ was bombarded with questions from confused school board members across the country. Questions focused on the posting of the motto, "In God We Trust," the use of the phrase "God Bless America" on school signs, and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

In response, the ACLJ Thursday overnighted a letter to state school superintendents in all 50 states, outlining what it sees as the constitutional protections afforded to religious speech in public schools.

Sekulow says the ACLJ is prepared to lend advice and counter any legal battle that a civil rights organization may wage against a given school. Its legal staff specializes in federal constitutional law, including the First Amendment's "establishment of religion" and free speech clauses as well as federal civil rights law.

There is growing support for the right to use religion in patriotic phrases. ACLJ's online "Patriotic Expression Of Religious Faith Petition" has attracted more than 40,000 electronic signatures since it was launched less than 2 weeks ago, said ACLJ spokesperson Gene Kapp.

In its petition, the ACLJ promises signatories that it will "defend your right to free speech and will stand with you to keep 'God Bless America' posted, and preserve the rights of your students to say the Pledge." The petition also urges educators to be "strong at this critical moment, and show the students entrusted to you that America can be one nation, under God, and indivisible."

But according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), school children are at an "impressionable age," and therefore it is the role of the parents, not school officials, to "bear the responsibility" of teaching their children religion.

And while AU advises against using the events of Sept. 11 as an "excuse" to ignore Supreme Court rulings on religion in public education, the ACLJ fires back with several instances of Supreme Court rulings that allow the mention of God in patriotic speech.

"As long as student participation in the recitation of the pledge is not mandatory, the practice is entirely permissible," wrote Sekulow. "Any person having a religious or other objection to the recitation of the pledge need not participate."

"Therefore," Sekulow noted, "if your school district displays a "God Bless America" or "In God We Trust" sign and/or merely allows the recitation of the pledge as one of the alternatives for engaging in patriotic exercises, there will be no constitutional violation."

So how does AU cope with the example set for school children by President Bush's declaration of a National Day of Prayer on Sept. 14? An October 24 AU statement advises government officials to refrain from asserting that prayer and religious worship are "somehow the natural, logical or expected" reaction to the tragic events.

But the AU reminds citizens, including public school administrators, that "millions of Americans do not do not believe in God at all, are agnostic or embrace humanistic principles."

In order to display respect for the religious beliefs of all Americans, AU suggests citizens embrace the "diversity of opinion on matters of theology and politics" of all non-Christian faiths.

Yet Sekulow believes recent calls for patriotism and the inclusion of God in speech are "something that's going to be with this country for a long time." He added that prior to the terrorist attacks this was lost, but "I think we've recaptured something here."

However, AU warns that God-inclusive patriotic speech can "make any citizen feel like an outsider on account of religious belief or lack thereof."

AU makes clear that it does not aim to extinguish America's new-found sense of pride, but desires to protect those offended by the inclusion of God in patriotic speech. As such, the civil rights organization suggests using "more inclusive" slogans such as "United We Stand" over the "divisive" yet popular, "God Bless America."

Sekulow says this is just an example of civil rights groups trying to "squelch" the use of patriotic phrases. He further vowed to challenge attempts by groups such as AU, noting that he is already working on six individual public-school-oriented cases similar in intent to AU's.

AU is steadfast in facing such challenges by Sekulow, maintaining that terms including "In God We Trust" and "God Bless America" promote religious messages or activities. Further, AU warns, such patriotic speech may cause some citizens to "feel like second-class citizens."

Calling for Americans to reaffirm their commitment to church-state separation and not turn their backs on it, AU notes that terrorists dislike America for its official policy of government neutrality toward religion.

"They want a theocracy where one faith is mandated by the government," AU commented. "It would be highly ironic if our response to this threat was to lower our own wall of separation between church and state," the statement concluded.

Sekulow holds that it is "hardly likely" that patriotic expressions that include reference to God present a threat to the separation of church and state "greater than the study and performance of religious songs and hymns associated with Christmas (or other) observances."