'God Bless America' Jangles ACLU Nerve
WARRENVILLE, Ill. — Debbie Durrbeck circulated fliers around her children's school to encourage students to wear red, white and blue to show support for the country in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
It brought her face-to-face with a phenomenon that others around the nation face: God is not always welcome at U.S. public schools. A lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, known as the ACLU, targets a California school that features the message “God Bless America” on a school marquee.
Durrbeck's school district didn't have to have a lawsuit filed against it to make it take action. They told Durrbeck to print a new flier or use scissors to remove “God Bless America” from her flier.
As director of the Parent Teachers Association for Clifford Johnson Elementary School, Durrbeck didn't want to rock the boat.
“I had to cut it off. It was awful,” she said. “It took everything I had to cut it off.”
Durrbeck has no plans to sue the school for what she calls censorship, but she notified the American Center for Law and Justice about the incident.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the Virginia-based legal organization, said that Durrbeck's experience is not unusual. He noted that schools across the country are squelching speech, mainly because of lawsuit fears.
“At a time when America desires to exhibit patriotism, the ACLU sees fit to undermine the constitution by attempting to exert a heavy hand of censorship,” said Sekulow.
He said the ACLU has no business suing a school district in Rocklin, Calif., for posting the “God Bless America” marquee.
“There's no reason why a school district cannot display a sign that says ‘God Bless America.’ That's constitutionally protected speech and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, said Sekulow. He called the ACLU's tactics “totally absurd and irresponsible.”
The American Civil Liberties Union maintains that “God Bless America” is not appropriate language in the nation's schoolrooms.
“It must be replaced immediately,” said Margaret Crosby, a lawyer for the ACLU of Northern California. She called it a “hurtful, divisive message.”
“This is a time that we need to promote unity among Americans of all faiths. Many schools are flying flags to instill a sense of unity in a time of trouble,” Crosby told the Register in a statement.
“By displaying a religious message,” she said, “the Breen Elementary is dividing its young students along religious lines.”
Rocklin school officials remained determined to keep the banner posted.
“I would like to think that the ACLU would not attempt to preclude or inhibit the free expression of patriotism and goodwill at a time when it is most appropriate, helpful or even healing,” Phillip Trujillo, an attorney representing the school, told the Sacramento Bee, a daily newspaper.
Other public schools around the country also posted “God Bless America” signs since Sept. 11, with out drawing lawsuits, The Washington Post reported. The Wells Community Academy high school in Chicago included the phrase on a digital display, it reported, citing a security officer.
Several public schools in Tucson, Ariz., have posted “God Bless America” on posters or marquees, apparently with some degree of approval from the Tucson Unified School District.
Sekulow said that the his organization will help Rocklin to stand up to the ACLU's “intimidation.”
“It is clear that the ACLU is attempting to censor a California school district by pressuring it to remove the sign,” said Sekulow. “We will defend any school district or student organization that faces legal action by the ACLU for displaying the message God Bless America.”
Richard Thompson said that the ACLU's methods are not new. As a lawyer for the Thomas More Law Center, he has fielded several calls from concerned students and parents.
“What has happened in the long-term is a pattern of intimidation. [School districts] have been threatened by lawsuits,” said Thompson. “It may be an accumulation of conduct where the ACLU has intimidated public bodies.”
But he said that the law is on the side of the students.
“They do have a constitutional right to express their beliefs,” said Thompson. “And that we are letting them know that we are here to defend their rights.”
Josh Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.
- October 21-27, 2001