'God bless America' sparks controversy at school

Yulee High School student made statement during announcements

YULEE, Fla. – Before and after the school bell rings, people standing with a Yulee High School student will show their support after controversy over a student saying "God bless America" during the morning announcements.

That student at has been told to stop using the phrase "God bless America" during the morning announcements after a national atheist group contacted the school on behalf of two atheist students who complained to the organization.

The student used the phrase to end the announcements on multiple occasions, according to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the school's principal threatening legal action if the school did not respond within seven days. The incident thrust Yulee into the national spotlight after the AHA got involved.

DOCUMENT: Letter to Yulee High from AHA

School district officials said Thursday that they banned the student from saying the phrase because someone reading the morning announcements over the intercom is speaking for the school and the district.

"Nonbelievers don't want God language being injected into their school day," said David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. "They correctly perceived this as the school taking a position on a religious issue, promoting the idea of God-belief. They thought that that was inappropriate, and they were right about that. It is an establishment clause violation."

Principal Natasha Drake's response to the American Humanist Association said the student's "God bless America," statement was not part of the approved scripted announcements.

"The student on his own accord made the statement," Drake wrote to the AHA. "I have called the student in this morning and directed him that at no time is he to add or take away from announcements that have been pre-approved and that if he did it again, he would no longer have the privilege of making the morning announcements. I am disappointed that the students who filed the complaint did not do so with me first, as I would have addressed it immediately."

School officials did not say the student doesn't have the right to say "God bless America" on campus, just not on the loudspeaker, which officials said implies that the school endorses the statement.

Niose said he appreciated the principal's quick response and felt she handled the situation appropriately.

"It's not benign for the school to be making statements like 'God bless America,' because those kind of statements validate the idea that God-belief is patriotic," Niose said. "And it portrays nonbelievers as less patriotic, and that's what people are concerned about."

A district representative pointed out that the student "has not been punished or removed from the morning announcements. The principal explained the situation and said, 'Don't do that anymore.'"

The Nassau County School District office was flooded with calls over the issue, and student reactions to the controversy were mixed Thursday. On campus, multiple trucks displayed the words "God bless America" written on their window.

"It's kind of upsetting to know our students was kind of (put) down for that. I mean, he spoke what he felt was right," student Penny Haymans said. "I'm kind of upset our principal didn't back him up, but I kind of understand her rights, because she would've got yelled at. I feel like she would've got in trouble if she stood up, too."

"Got to agree with the Constitution," student Jamison Stallard said. "It says you can't, but I wish you could. God's in the Pledge (of Allegiance)."

"I think everyone's allowed to have an opinion. The Constitution says you have the right to do so," student Jeremy Tromblay said. "I make no statement supporting it or denying it."

"If it's not your belief, you don't have to say it, or believe it," student Breanna Kilpatrick said.

Niose said it's a misunderstanding if people think the incident boils down to a free speech issue.

"People tend to think … that the students involved have free speech rights to be making proclamations over the intercom, but the morning announcements in the school are not a free speech forum," Niose said. "Morning announcements are the school making a statement -- even if it happens to be a student making the statement on behalf of the school -- the school is making an announcement, so the school can not be taking a position on a religious or political issue."

Niose said those upset with the school banning religious statements over the intercom should consider how they might feel if a student made an atheistic statement or a statement endorsing a minority religion, like Hinduism or Islam, over the intercom.

"Of course people would be upset about that, so they should just as easily understand that it's not appropriate for students to be making statements like, 'God bless America,'" Niose said. "There are religious minorities who do not want patriotism being portrayed as being associated with God-belief."

District officials said if the offended students had gone to the principal privately to address their concerns, the issue would've been handled without all the media attention. 

"It is our desire and intention to respect the beliefs and constitutional freedoms of all our students at Yulee High School," Drake wrote to the AHA.

About the Authors:

Scott is a multi-Emmy Award Winning Anchor and Reporter, who also hosts the “Going Ringside With The Local Station” Podcast. Scott has been a journalist for 25 years, covering stories including six presidential elections, multiple space shuttle launches and dozens of high-profile murder trials.

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.