For several weeks, the student-led morning announcements at Yulee High School in Florida ended with the words “God Bless America.” (As if the Pledge wasn’t enough?)
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 Godbelief, validates a theistic worldview, and is invidious toward atheists and other nonbelievers. The students in question are atheists and do not believe in any god. Every day these students must witness the State, through its public schools, define patriotism in a way that portrays Godbelief as consistent with ideal patriotism and disbelief as something less.
It’s actually a long letter for something that I don’t really consider a big deal, but the AHA is right in principle: For the same reason public schools can’t recite prayers over the loudspeakers, they’re not supposed to use morning announcements to endorse religion. This isn’t something students can ignore if they want, either; it’s a mandatory part of the school day.
Within a few hours, they got a response from the principal:
… the principal [said] that the theistic assertion was not part of the scripted announcements but was added by a student without the school’s approval. In response to the letter, the administration promptly warned the student not to make such non-approved announcements in the future. The principal reassured the legal center, “It is our desire and intention to respect the belief and constitutional freedoms of all our students at Yulee High School.”
Great! Problem solved. It’s interesting that no one in the administration realized the problem until the AHA — on behalf of two atheist students — called them out on it, but at least they took action.
Enter Fox News’ Todd Starnes, who loves to escalate these situations by suggesting that neutrality is somehow anti-Christian:
I asked Jeremy Dys, an attorney with Liberty Institute to weigh in on this nonsense and he said the atheists don’t have a prayer.
“Whether a student is being patriotic or engaging in religious speech, there is no law in this country forbidding a student from telling his or her classmates, ‘God bless America’ and it is illegal for a school to censor a student for doing so,” he said.
Dys also wonders why atheists are so hell-bent on trying to censor the patriotic speech of a red-blooded American high school student.
“Regardless of this attempt by secularists to white wash over this demonstration of patriotism by a teenager, America’s students do not give up their right to free speech and the expression of their religious beliefs when they go to school,” he said.
Of course, anyone who understands the law — which Starnes refuses to do on purpose and Dys refuses to do because his job depends on it — knows that this isn’t a free speech issue. The moment you’re doing morning announcements, you’re acting on behalf of the school and you can’t make religious pronouncements in any way. That’s why what the student did was wrong.
If he wants to tell his classmates “God bless America,” that’s fine. He can wear a shirt saying the same thing. But if he wants to speak on behalf of the school, he has to remain neutral.
This is a ridiculously simple concept. So it’s not surprising to me that Starnes doesn’t get it.
Maybe he would, though, if one of those atheist students delivered the announcements and said “There’s no God” at the end of them. I doubt Starnes would be writing a post all about how we need to defend that student’s free speech rights.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Jesse for the link)