According to Christian News
, the unnamed student's grandfather served in the US military in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. The young girl was going to read the poem at a Veterans Day ceremony at her school, West Marion Elementary School, in McDowell County, North Carolina.
reports that the "offensive" line: “He prayed to God for peace, he prayed to God for strength,” was a reference to her grandfather's courage during the war. But a member of the community reportedly complained that the fact that a poem to be read at a public ceremony mentions God portrays the school as endorsing a particular religious view above others and thus, may be offensive to people with different views. The school officials, therefore, decided to have the reference to God expunged from the poem.
According to The New American
, Chris Greene, an employee of the school, said school authorities “had one parent concerned with the use of the word God in this program. This parent did not want the word God mentioned anywhere in the program.”
McDowell County school superintendent, Gerri Martin, told McDowell News
: "We wanted to make sure we were upholding the school district’s responsibility of separation of church and state from the Establishment Clause.”
The elementary school principal, Desarae Kirkpatrick, also said: “We jointly decided that we must err on the side of caution to prevent from crossing the line on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.” She added: "As a principal of a public school, I must put aside my personal religious beliefs and follow the law, which upholds that we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but that we, as public schools, cannot endorse one single religion over another.”
reports that some have supported the public school’s decision, saying officials were right to remove the reference to God because the poem was going to be read at an assembly. Ken Paulson of the Washington-based First Amendment Center
, told McDowell News
that he believes the school authorities were right to expunge "God" from the poem because it was meant for public reading. He said: "Courts have found that religious references at school-sponsored events generally run afoul of the First Amendment... when a public school knows there’s going to be a reference to religion then there is a problem and they have to address it. The reason for these restrictions is to prevent the government from endorsing a specific faith or religion. So public schools have to steer clear of religious references.”
reports Paulson said: “When the little girl wrote the poem and included a reference to God, she had every right to do that. The First Amendment protects all Americans. She had every right to mention God, [but] that dynamic changed when they asked her to read it at an assembly.”
But Matt Sharp of The Alliance Defending Freedom
, a conservative group that advocates for religious freedom, criticized the school’s decision. According to Christian News
, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argued that the school was wrong to force the girl to remove God from her poem. A letter the group sent last Friday to the school and district officials, said:
“America’s public schools should encourage, not restrict, the constitutionally protected freedom of students to express their faith. Students should not be censored when speaking about their faith or honoring those who valiantly served to protect our freedoms. The censorship of this young student’s poem about her grandfather is repugnant to the First Amendment rights of all students and sends an impermissible message of hostility towards religion."
The letter added: “[T]he First Amendment protects the right of students to discuss their faith–especially when they are discussing a historical event like this student in her poem honoring her grandfathers.”
The letter concluded: “[School] officials may not suppress or exclude the personal speech of students simply because the speech is religious or contains a religious perspective."
According to The New American
, officials at the North Carolina elementary school have received severe criticism from local residents.
reports that a local resident Esther Dollarhyde, said: “We need to keep in mind what our country was founded on. It was founded on God and Jesus Christ, and our veterans went out and fought for us so we would have a free country. But if we aren't allowed to honor them the way that the children want to, then America is getting lost."
also reports another local resident, Trudy Pascoe, said: “I am outraged that a school would deny a six-year-old child her First Amendment rights — especially during an assembly to honor our nation’s veterans. It is unacceptable for schools to continue to deny students rights because of their Christian viewpoint.”