Thursday, February 12, 2015

"God Bless America" Unconstitutional?

That's what the legal branch of the American Humanist Association, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, says.

Last week a student at Yulee High School in Nassau County, Florida, was making the morning announcements. At the conclusion of the written announcements the student closed with "God bless America. Keep us safe!"

Two atheists in the student body were apparently offended by these words (Where do these people learn this stuff?) and complained to the principal contacted the American Humanist Association complaining that their Constitutional rights (and their poor feelings) had been violated by the other student's words.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center fired off a letter to the school. The content of the letter borders on ridiculous.

“It is inappropriate and unlawful for a public school to start the school day with an official statement over the intercom stating, ‘God Bless America,’ for such a statement affirms God-belief, validates a theistic worldview and is invidious toward atheists and other nonbelievers,” the letter stated.

Actually, the student added those words at the end and they were not a part of the official announcements. He may have violated the school's rules for making announcements but he did so of his own volition and not as a part of the school administration.

The AHA went on to suggest that the student violated the Constitution and broke the law by invoking the name of God over the public address system. 

“The daily validation of the religious views of God-believers resigns atheists to second-class citizens,” the AHA wrote. “Because attendance is mandatory, the students have no way of avoiding this daily message either.”

Uh... wrong again. On two counts. First, the student has a guaranteed right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Neither the Constitution nor the laws of the land say that right ends at the front door of the school. 

And second, "God bless America" is not said daily at the end of the announcements. It was said by one student one time and therefore is not a "daily validation of the religious views of God-believers." I can't believe a legal center actually made such a blatantly false statement in a letter of complaint. Perhaps they believed (correctly, it seems) they could intimidate the principal by using strong (if untrue) wording in the letter. They threatened to sue the school if the school did not "immediately cease and desist" with the practice.

It worked. The school principal immediately responded with a letter to the American Humanist Association apologizing and saying they had taken action against the student. 

“Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention," the prinipal wrote. "I want to point out that the statement "God Bless America, keep us safe" that was made last week on the morning announcements was not approved by school Administration nor was it in the scripted announcements. The student on his own accord made the statement. I have called the student in this morning and directed him that at no time is he to add or take away from announcements that have been pre-approved and that if he did it again, he would no longer have the privilege of making the morning announcements. I am disappointed that the students who filed the complaint did not do so with me first, as I would have addressed it immediately. Once again, thank you for bringing this concern to my attention. It is our desire and intention to respect the beliefs and constitutional freedoms of all our students at Yulee High School.”

He caved to the threat, big time. The threat of a lawsuit makes schools cave all the time. Perhaps the principals aren't familiar enough with the First Amendment or perhaps they simply don't want to take the time to deal with an over-aggressive atheist organization but they are selling the students out when the give in to such tactics.

I'm no Constitutional scholar but I do know what the First Amendment says. The First Amendment prohibits the government from mandating a national religion or promoting one religion over another. That is not what happened in this case. The principal could have answered the letter from the AHA very simply, without apologizing for anything.

"Thank you for your correspondence concerning the "God bless America" controversy. Legally, there is no basis for your complaint or threatened lawsuit. Students have a guaranteed right to freedom of speech and since the words he added at the end of the announcement were not on the written text they were not endorsed by the school. They were, however, within his right to say.

The "problem" has already corrected itself since this was a one-time incident. It has not occurred again. And since one student saying one thing in one school in one state doesn't really constitute a  "daily validation of the religious views of God-believers," and it has not happened again, there is no valid basis for a lawsuit. If you feel the need to pursue that course it is within your right. Our lawyers will tell the judge the same thing. 

Again, thank you for your concern. Have a blessed day."

OK, that last sentence is something I would add (just because that's who I am) and probably would not be necessary in an official letter from the school. But I'd never be tolerated as a school principal anyway, I'm sure.

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