A prominent national atheist organization sent a letter to a Florida high school complaining about a student ending the morning announcements by saying "God bless America," resulting in disciplinary action.
According to a report from WFOX-TV, Monica Miller of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, an atheist group from Washington, wrote a letter to the Nassau County school superintendent and Yulee High School principal Natasha Drake. The American Humanist Organization has also criticized the high school's action.
"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 God-belief, validates a theistic worldview, and is invidious toward atheists and other nonbelievers," Miller wrote. "The students in question are atheists and do not believe in any god."
In Miller's letter, she described the action by the student as a "constitutional violation," given that a school official selects a student to read the morning announcements on a pre-approved script over a PA system. She then reminded Yulee High School that based on the Supreme Court ruling in regards to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the "religious messages" violated the law.
"School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible," Miller wrote. "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]."
After detailing her legal argument, Miller ended the letter by writing that the school district could be sued "for damages, an injunction, and attorneys' fees."
Drake promptly responded to the atheist organization's letter, which was published by Nicholas Kurch of Independent Journal Review.
"I want to point out that the statement 'God Bless America, keep us safe' that was made last week on the morning announcements was not approved by school Administration nor was it in the scripted announcements," Drake wrote. "The student on his own accord made the statement."
Drake added that the student "would no longer have the privilege of making the morning announcements" if he did that again in the morning announcements. However, she expressed disappoint that the students who complained didn't go to her first.
"I am disappointed that the students who filed the complaint did not do so with me first, as I would have addressed it immediately," Drake said.
The principal then thanked the atheist organization for bringing up the issue, adding that it was "our desire and intention to respect the beliefs and constitutional freedoms of all our students at Yulee High School."
This controversy in Florida reached the attention of Todd Starnes. In an opinion article he wrote for Fox News, he asked district spokesperson Sharyl Wood why the high school had a problem with the phrase "God Bless America."
"As an official representative of a governmental agency, schools aren't allowed to promote or inhibit religion," Wood said to Starnes. "Individual students are certainly permitted to express their religious beliefs but not on behalf of the governmental body."
Wood explained to Starnes that students who delivered the morning announcements became a representative of the government, which meant they cannot invoke God.
"We can't say God bless America or hail to Muslims - nobody can get up there and say there is no God," Wood explained. "We have respect for all people's faiths and religions."
Jeremy Dys, an attorney with Liberty Institute, decided to weigh in on the matter. According to Starnes, Dys argued that the atheists were wrong.
"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," Dys said.
Dys then wondered why the atheist students engaged in what Starnes thought was censorship of "patriotic speech."
"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," Dys said.
Starnes then tried to ask the district spokesperson how the student was disciplined by the school. He was unable to obtain an answer from them.