POLITICS

Florida Student Told No 'God Bless America' In Morning Announcements

02/13/2015 01:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
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(Adds comment from humanism association, paragraphs 9-10)

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla., Feb 13 (Reuters) - A Florida high school told a student this week to stop adding the phrase "God bless America" when reading scripted morning announcements, drawing protests and irate phone calls from around the nation, school officials said on Friday.

The principal at Yulee High School, located in north Florida near Jacksonville, asked the student to stick to the script after receiving a six-page letter on Monday from the American Humanist Association, a group that describes itself as advocating for humanists, atheists and secular governance.

The letter said two Yulee students who are atheists had complained about the use over the past several weeks of the phrase.

"Don't ad-lib. Just read what's on the script, and don't put anything else on it," was the message given to the student announcer, said Sharyl Wood, a spokeswoman for the school district in Nassau County, just north of Jacksonville.

The student, who was not identified by the school district, was not punished, she said.

Yet reports that he had been disciplined received national attention in an opinion piece by Todd Starnes, host of the radio show "Fox News & Commentary."

Yulee High subsequently was flooded with phone calls, Wood said, and in recent days some people have waved signs in protest near the school, located in a conservative region of Florida.

The legal center of the Humanist Association called the phrase "God bless America" a religious message that "is invidious toward atheists and other nonbelievers" and said it violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment requirement for separation of church and state, according to the group's letter.

"Students are certainly free to say 'God bless America' in their own personal context any time they want to," said David Niose, the association's legal director. "But when we are talking about morning announcements, it is not a free speech forum."

Niose added that many people would be upset if school announcements featured an endorsement of Islam, atheism or another minority religious view in the United States.

The superintendent in Nassau County has been researching the issue and plans to respond to the controversy, according to the school district spokeswoman.

"People have the right to express their opinions," Wood said. "We are not trying to hurt or suppress any student. This is not over yet." (Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Leslie Adler and Will Dunham)

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