Students should not be made to feel like outsiders in public schools merely because they don’t believe in any god. So, when our office received two separate complaints from atheist students at Yulee High School in Florida regarding daily morning announcements over the public address system declaring “God bless America,” we promptly notified school authorities that such government-sponsored religious messages endorse God-belief over nontheism in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The school agreed, immediately warning the student responsible for the announcements that “if he did it again, he would no longer have the privilege of making the morning announcements.” We thanked the administration for taking the proper steps to ensure that all students feel welcome in the school.
But Fox News and its proponents feel it is perfectly acceptable to disregard the views and rights of atheists, even calling the administration “constitutionally ignorant educators.” Nothing could be more wrong. The Establishment Clause plainly forbids the government from favoring “religious belief over disbelief.” County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 610 (1989). It is therefore unconstitutional 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 Supreme Court made this clear in the seminal case of Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 309-10 (2000), which held student-delivered prayers at public school football games are unconstitutional:
School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherants “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherants that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” [citation omitted] The delivery of such a message—over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty [violates the Establishment Clause].
It is precisely because the religious announcements send a hostile message to atheists that Fox News defends them. Rest assured, if the school’s announcements declared, “No gods bless America!”, “Hail Satan!”, or “Praise Allah,” Fox’s Todd Starnes and his followers most certainly would not take issue with a school’s decision to reprimand a student for the delivery of such anti-Christian messages to a captive audience of school children. We all know Fox has no real interest in free speech or religious freedom unless the student involved is a Christian.
That the government’s promotion of God-belief perpetuates stigmatism toward atheists and the McCarthy-era stereotype that atheists are unpatriotic is not a mere cavil. For several weeks, these students were forced to witness the State, through its public schools, define patriotism in a way that portrays God-belief as consistent with ideal patriotism and disbelief as something less. Fortunately, the Establishment Clause creates a bulwark against such abuses of governmental power and protects the rights of the minority.
We received a litany of hate mail after Fox News reported on the school’s action in response to our letter. If the phrase “God bless America” was truly innocuous and nonreligious, the Christian majority would have nothing to complain about when those words are removed from government imprimatur. However the outcry, sampled here and edited only to avoid certain profanity, simply reaffirms the obvious.
- Ben: “You need to take your communist crap somewhere else, you are not welcome here, try Russia, they seem to fit your life style, this nation is of Christian origins get over it”
- Ken: “First of all, you un-American faggots can go f[**]k yourselves. This is a Christian nation whether you choose to acknowledge that or not. Secondly, we will continue to say ‘God Bless America’ in our schools, in our churches and wherever else we feel like saying. If you don’t like it shove it up your motherf[***]ing asses.”
- Herb: “i’d like you to know that y’all are nuts. the audacity to complain to the school district because a student said ‘god bless america’. have you ever heard of freedom of speech?? or freedom of religion?? or does that only apply to two piss ass student’s who don’t have the ability to walk to the principles office and politely complain about us god fearing people. y’all need to get a life….”
- Thom: “Help me understand why & how Atheist’s rights have priority over a Christian’s rights? …This First Amendment is to guaranty freedom OF religion, not freedom From religion!…”
- Tom M: “…OH I teach, and a government employee, so here>> GOD BLESS AMERICA, I dare you to come to my home and try and make me not say these words, you petty pieces of who knows . what kind of grown up goes after kids.”
- Randy: “You people are nothing but a bunch of worthless trust fund faggots, what about my right to express my freedom of speech. i suppose it would of been alright if the student would of said god bless Allah at the end of his announcements. You should be ashamed of yourselves. This shit has got to stop you worthless scumbags anti american communist pieces of shit.”
Beyond their sheer hatefulness, many of these folks want to have their cake and eat it too, claiming on the one hand that the removal of “God” from the school’s messages infringes upon religious freedom, yet on the other, claim that the phrase is innocuous and not religious. Either it is religious and violates the Establishment Clause or it isn’t. Free speech is not implicated here either. Not a single case supports the notion that a school’s PA system is a public forum for individual student speech, especially when it is utilized for the school’s morning announcements. Indeed, the courts have been unanimous in holding that student-led messages over a school’s PA system are government speech, governed by the Establishment Clause rather than protected by the Free Speech Clause. (It bears mentioning that if there were a public forum, the school would have to allow morning announcements declaring, “No gods bless America” lest it violate the Free Speech Clause).
In short, Todd Starnes is the one who’s “constitutionally ignorant,” not the principal who wisely reprimanded a student for using the school’s PA system as a soapbox for promoting God-belief.
POSTSCRIPT: On February 17, 2015, the superintendent of the Nassau Country School District issued a press release claiming that “God bless America” does not violate the First Amendment. Nevertheless, school district spokeswoman Sharyl Wood said the morning script restriction still applies. “The admonition not to add to the script applies to anything,” she said. The AHA is disheartened by the district’s backpedaling on this important issue, but is pleased that the school’s official morning announcements will no longer include the invidious phrase “God bless America.”