Constitution prohibits schools from imposing religion on children

Newark – The ACLU of New Jersey applauded a move taken by administration of Glenview Elementary School in Haddon Heights to stop the practice of adding “God bless America” during the Pledge of Allegiance recited during daily morning assembly. The ACLU-NJ sent a letter to the school district (PDF) on December 30, 2015, explaining that invoking a blessing from God at the beginning of each school day violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which calls for no government sponsorship of religion.

“Our constitution is clear: schools can't coerce or impose religion on children,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “It’s the job of parents to decide how and whether to instill religion, not public schools. There is a special concern when it involves students at such an impressionable age, including kindergartners. It gives some children an uncomfortable choice between opting out and risking the status of pariah, or troublemaker, or participating in a group exercise that pressures them into voicing beliefs that may run counter to their own and their parents.”

Students at the school, which houses children between kindergarten and sixth grade, have stood at attention lined up by grade to recite the phrase “God bless America” immediately following the Pledge of Allegiance for about 14 years. The Constitution prohibits not only public institutions from favoring one religion above another, but also from favoring religion over non-religion. The United States Supreme Court has rejected a practice of invoking God’s blessing as a daily ritual.

“Students have the right to engage in speech, including religious speech, on their own time at school, and the ACLU-NJ has defended students’ religious speech in the past,” Barocas said.

“The fact that the phrase has some patriotic overtones does not cancel out the fundamentally religious nature of the words recited every morning in unison at the school, led by teachers and administrators,” added Barocas. “The school should focus its efforts on academics and the enrichment of children, not the debate over whether to add a religious blessing to the end of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

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