God Better Not Bless America

Not just purely religious expressions are forbidden on school grounds, but anything-words, symbols, or messages-that can be associated with Christianity. When Breen Elementary School in Rocklin, California, placed the message "God Bless America" on the school marquee after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the ACLU accused the school of committing a "clear violation of the California and United States constitutions, as well as the California Education Code." "It must be replaced immediately," said the ACLU staff attorney.

According to the ACLU, the message divided students along religious lines, harming and isolating students of minority faiths. This is a time, said the attorney, that schools "should be supporting" minority faiths "and the values of pluralism and tolerance." The school district's attorney, Phillip Trujillo, disputed this characterization, saying, "It's simply not a religious expression. It's instead a patriotic expression." Mike Forbes, president of the district's board of trustees, said he was "disgusted" by the ACLU demand. The ACLU's action outraged students, parents, and some administrators, who came together at a rally 250 people strong, dressed in red, white, and blue in support of the sign's message. The school defiantly (and courageously) decided to continue displaying the sign. "They picked the wrong issue, they picked the wrong time, and they picked the wrong community," said Forbes.

It is quite a stretch to say that an innocuous sign whose primary thrust is patriotic, not religious, violated the Establishment Clause because it contained a polite, nonsectarian exhortation to the Almighty to bless our nation, which was under attack. American presidents have routinely invoked the blessing for two hundred years. The sign didn't say, "The Triune Godhead blesses America," or "Jesus Christ Blesses America." It was a neutral reference to God folded into a patriotic message. Even the California Supreme Court has said that the phrase "God Bless America" is a traditional, nonreligious patriotic phrase. The only people likely offended by such a message are those looking to be offended-and that noisy minority has no constitutional right to abolish the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

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