School rallies to retain sign: The ACLU says the message 'God Bless America' divides kids by religion and is unconstitutional.
By Ryan McCarthy
(Published Oct. 6, 2001)
A demand by the American Civil Liberties Union that Breen Elementary School in Rocklin remove a "God Bless America" sign prompted angry parents, students and administrators to rally at the school Friday evening.
About 250 people, many clad in red, white and blue, gathered to support the message, which was placed on a marquee in front of the school after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Linda Kosturos, an instructional aide at Breen, said, "Rocklin has been closer than ever in the wake of the terrorist attacks. It's so sad this has arisen."
The ACLU contends that the words broadcast "a hurtful, divisive message."
The organization's Wednesday letter to Breen Elementary calls the message a "clear violation of the California and United States constitutions, as well as the California Education Code."
"It must be replaced immediately," says the letter from Margaret Crosby, staff counsel for the ACLU of Northern California, based in San Francisco.
Phillip Trujillo, an attorney representing the Rocklin Unified School District, said the words don't violate laws on the separation of church and state.
"It's simply not a religious expression," he said. "It's instead a patriotic expression."
His written response sent to the ACLU on Friday describes as "absurd" the argument that the phrase "God Bless America" represents a "hurtful, divisive message."
"I would like to think that the ACLU would not attempt to preclude or inhibit the free expression of patriotism and goodwill at a time when it is most appropriate, helpful or even healing," he said.
Mark Forbes, president of the district's board of trustees, said he was "disgusted" by the ACLU request.
"I would like someone to explain how 'God Bless America' hurts anyone," he said.
ACLU attorney Crosby said Friday that "this is a time when we need to promote unity among Americans of all faiths. Many schools are flying flags to instill a sense of unity in a time of trouble."
"By displaying a religious message, the Breen Elementary School is dividing its young students along religious lines," Crosby added. "School officials are hurting and isolating their schoolchildren of minority faiths when they should be supporting them and the values of pluralism and tolerance."
Displaying such a message is not only unconstitutional "but implies only students who share the faith are truly patriotic," she stated.
A parent whose child attends the school and is "greatly troubled by the sign" spurred the request, the ACLU said in a written statement.
Before receiving the letter, Rocklin Superintendent Kevin Brown said he had received calls from two people asking that the statement on the marquee be removed.
He said that with the district's response Friday, "The ball's in the ACLU's court."
Stella Richardson, media relations director for the ACLU of Northern California, said, "It is entirely unprecedented" for a school not to take down a message such as Breen displays.
Richardson said she is not aware of ACLU involvement at other schools over similar issues.
Terry Thornton, Breen Elementary principal, said the words on the school marquee reflect a grass-roots effort following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"We are planning on keeping up our message," Thornton said.
All's I can say, how low can the ACLU go?