New Jersey school ends 'God bless America' after ACLU complaint

Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights, NJ  © Google Maps
An elementary school in southern New Jersey will cease saying "God bless America" after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The move comes following a legal complaint by the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Sam Sassano, principal of Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights, said the voluntary tradition started following the attacks of September 11, 2001, in honor of the victims and first responders that perished in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“It just became sort of a habit,” Sassano told the Courier Post. “Now it’s part of the culture here.”

On December 30, the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU sent a letter to the school's attorney, calling the school's endorsement of the phrase "unconstitutional."

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government not only from favoring one religion over another, but also from promoting religion over non-religion," read the letter, written by ACLU-NJ legal director Ed Barocas.

"The greatest care must be taken to avoid the appearance of governmental endorsement in schools, especially elementary schools, given the impressionable age of the children under the school's care and authority," it continued.

In 1962, the US Supreme Court "halted a school district's practice of students' acknowledging God and asking God's 'blessings on us, our parents, our teachers and our Country' immediately following recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance," Barocas added.

After receiving the ACLU's complaint, Sassano wrote to the parents of the approximately 265 students at the public school, saying the school's use of "God bless America" was not meant to overstep the line of separation between church and state. “[I]t has been our view that the practice is fundamentally patriotic in nature and does not invoke or advance any religious message, despite the specific reference to God’s blessing," he added.

He also wrote that the school's recitation of "God bless America" was not mandatory for any student, and that students may continue to say the phrase if they like.

"Whether the practice of having the students say 'God bless America' at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance is more akin to religious prayer or simply a manifestation of patriotism has no clear cut legal answer."

The school will "explore alternative methods of honoring the victims and first responders of the 9/11 tragedy," given a potentially expensive legal fight to maintain the phrase's official use at the school, he added.

Barocas disagreed with Sassano's implication that the slogan does not usher children toward a particular religion.

"While the phrase has patriotic overtones, that doesn't negate the phrase's fundamentally religious nature of invoking God's blessing," Barocas told "There are so many other ways, such as 'united we stand' to express patriotism and love of our country."

Barocas did not elaborate on how the school's recitation of the phrase was reported to the ACLU, added.

Some parents of students at Glenview complained, saying "God bless America" before classes was a proud tradition at the school.

"I really feel like this is taking our children's rights away," Debi Krezel told the Courier-Post. "And it's sad. I believe everyone has a right to feel the way they feel, but don't take away my beliefs and rights."

Barocas denied the ACLU's complaint over the phrase was about children's speech rights, but rather the issue was one of an implied endorsement of a particular religion at a public school.

“This was not students’ speech, this was a daily recitation at an official school assembly led by the school officials,” Barocas told the Courier-Post.

ACLU-New Jersey did not respond to a request for comment on the school's decision before publication time.