Group claims school displays are unconstitutional

Published 7:41 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Maplesville High School has been asked to remove the phrase “God Bless America” from its website and a plaque in the school’s front office by a group claiming the endorsements of religion are unconstitutional.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) mailed a letter this past summer to former Superintendent of Education Keith Moore and Maplesville Principal Maggie Hicks demanding the references to God be removed.

The letter, sent from FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert, claims the website and plaque violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The letter, dated July 27, 2010, is written on behalf of a “concerned area resident, taxpayer and parent of a Chilton preschool student” and other members of the nonprofit organization.

The letter says the First Amendment “prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages” and asked that the references be “removed immediately.”

“The display of religious messages in the school setting violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public schools from advancing, supporting or promoting religion. Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography on the walls of the public schools…” the letter reads in part. READ THE FULL FFRF LETTER

The letter continues: “When a public school posts ‘God Bless America,’ it sends a message to its students that the school is endorsing and compelling belief in God. Courts have observed that young students are particularly prone to believing that a religious message is school endorsed.”

Dorman Walker of Balch & Bingham Attorneys and Counselors in Montgomery responded on behalf of the Chilton County Board of Education on Aug. 10, 2010, referencing several Supreme Court cases about the matter.

“Expressing the wish that God will bless America is substantively quite different from the examples cited in your letter, such as displaying the Ten Commandments or a picture of Jesus under circumstances indicating that not only religion, but a particular religion, is being advocated. Moreover, your letter somewhat overstates what the Establishment Clause requires … (As the Lynch v. Donnelly decision ruled), any notion that this phrase poses ‘a real danger of establishment of a state church is farfetched indeed.'”

After receiving the response letter from Walker, FFRF sent out an action alert asking their members across the state to write individual letters to the BOE and The Clanton Advertiser to help support their objection to the website and plaque.

“I received an email forwarded to me from someone else a few days ago, and at this point I’m waiting to talk to the board members,” said Superintendent Dave Hayden. “We want to do what’s right. It’s legally being discussed amongst administration.”

Board President Joe Mims said, “About all we can do right now is assess the situation and let the board make a decision and come up with a solution.”

Maplesville High School has recently changed the phrase on its website to read “In God We Trust,” which is actually the same phrase written on the plaque in the school’s front office, said Hicks.

“The plaque says, ‘In God We Trust’ and it also says, ‘A motto by Congress,'” she said. “It was given to us by Congress and is the same plaque most schools have in their front office, library or lunchroom.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation is based in Madison, Wisc. The group says its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. The organization’s website is