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January 04, 2016

New Jersey school ends recitation of 'God bless America' following ACLU challenge

Glenview Elementary School students have recited the phrase since the Sept. 11 attacks

A New Jersey elementary school is ending a tradition it began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the practice.

Students at Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights have recited the phrase "God bless America" following their morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. But the ACLU of New Jersey claims the practice is unconstitutional, according to a letter Principal Sam Sassano sent to parents, guardians and staffers.

Rather than engage in a costly challenge, Glenview Elementary is discontinuing its "official endorsement" of reciting "God bless America," Sassano wrote in the letter. He said the school will explore other ways to honor the victims and first-responders of Sept. 11.

The ACLU claimed the recitation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, alleging it promotes religious over non-religious beliefs.

"Our Constitution is clear," ACLU New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas said. "Schools can't impose religion on children. Parents, not government, have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children."

Sassano acknowledged the ACLU's arguments in his letter. But he said Glenview administrators view the recitation as an act of patriotism, not religion.

"On the other hand, it 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," Sassano wrote. "We are also mindful of the history of the phrase and song, “God bless America,” and its general usage in our daily vernacular."

Barocas disagreed, alleging the recitation coerces children toward a particular religious viewpoint. He noted the Supreme Court previously halted a school district from having its students seek God's blessing by reciting a similar phrase.

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

Glenview agreed to drop its endorsement of the phrase due to the financial costs of a legal battle. But Sassano did not surrender to the ACLU's arguments.

"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," Sassano wrote in his letter.

Barocas declined to specify how the matter was brought to the ACLU's attention, saying it was not relevant.

Joseph F. Betley of the Capehart Scatchard law firm in Mount Laurel, solicitor for the Haddon Heights district, said Monday evening that he had no comment at this time on the ACLU letter.

Staff writer Bob McGovern contributed to this report.