Florida school reverses ban on 'God bless America'

by Dwayne Hastings, National Correspondent |
Local citizens, including Florida State Representative Janet Adkins (in red), gather Feb. 13 near Yulee High School to express their opposition to the decision to ban the mention of "God bless America" during the school's morning announcements. | MARY MAGUIRE / ncflindependent.com

YULEE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- The Nassau County School Board which had banned a Yulee High School student from saying "God bless America" during morning announcements has reversed itself and now says the phrase is protected free speech.

The unnamed student added the phrase at the close of the daily school announcements on at least one occasion.

Reportedly two atheist students brought the matter to the attention of the American Humanist Association, who then complained to the local authorities about the mention of God in a school setting.

The Yulee community is situated along I-95 between Jacksonville and the Florida-Georgia state line.

The atheist group, whose motto is "Good without a god," sent a six-page letter Feb. 9 to the school's principal and the local school superintendent, replete with references to what they consider to be relevant, established court cases, demanding "such religious messages" be stopped immediately, saying they are a "constitutional violation."

They argued that in a school setting the phrase is "inappropriate and unlawful," and that the "daily validation of the religious views of God-believers resigns atheists to second class citizens."

School officials immediately bowed to pressure from the anti-Christian group, telling the student if he mentioned God again on the public address system he would no longer be allowed to read the announcements.

On Feb. 17 the school board reversed itself, announcing the student's speech was in fact protected by the Constitution and that the phrase "God bless America" was less an expression of personal faith or trust in God and more of a nonsectarian utterance.

In a press release officials noted the phrase "does not promote any religious denomination and is commonly used as an expression of patriotism," saying the complaint emanating from AHA on behalf of two students "should not supersede the right of other students to use the phrase."

Despite the board's decision, students still are expected to follow the scripted announcements and not add any editorial comments, including references to God.

The incident generated significant national interest in the small Florida town, which is perhaps known best for its proximity to trendy Amelia Island. Since the school's action, locals have been protesting the decision and speaking out on behalf of students' rights to free speech.

Nassau County School district spokesperson Sheryl Wood blamed the media for making the incident a controversy, which she said prompted many to regard the student as a hero.

WFCN quoted a Yulee High School student as asking why a student could not say something that the president of the United States often says at the conclusion of his speeches. The reporter cited another student asking why saying "God bless America" is a problem when, "We have had posters with the LGBT message and no one has a problem with that."

"Nonbelievers don't want God language being injected into their school day," said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association, according to WJXT-TV, while threatening to sue the school board. "They [complainants] correctly perceived this as the school taking a position on a religious issue, promoting the idea of God-belief. They thought that that was inappropriate, and they were right about that. It is an establishment clause violation."

While the American Humanist Association initially prevailed in its threat against school administrators in Yulee, Fla., it has failed outright in its bid to strike "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance elsewhere. The group, which has an ongoing effort to encourage school children to remain seated during the pledge, filed suit in a northern New Jersey court because the inclusion of "under God" in the pledge "directly contradicts the religious beliefs and principles of the plaintiffs."