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When school secretary Chris White pasted the words “God Bless America” on the marquee of Breen Elementary — a space usually reserved for bake sale announcements — she intended to make a patriotic statement in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Now she said she’s surprised to find that her small sign has thrust the quiet suburban school at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in California into the debate over the separation of church and state. Reacting to word of the Rocklin, Calif., dispute and others like it, the U.S. House of Representatives voted Tuesday to approve a nonbinding resolution urging schools to post “God Bless America.” The vote was 404-0. White’s little sign, surrounded by red, white and blue ribbons and an American flag, may test how far the American Civil Liberties Union is willing to go in challenging what it perceives as religious messages on public buildings in today’s climate. The outcome in Rocklin and in other disputes across the country may also gauge the extent to which the Sept. 11 attacks have blurred the line between patriotism and religion. “It was a patriotic statement in a time when the country was in mourning,” White said. She said she didn’t even think about it as a religious symbol until the school received a letter from the ACLU demanding that it take the sign down, a move The Sacramento Bee denounced as “bone-headed.” Since then hundreds of parents wearing red, white and blue T-shirts have rallied outside the school in support of the sign. And the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice — a public interest law firm founded by outspoken Christian evangelist Pat Robertson — has offered the school its legal services. Outside counsel to the school district, Phillip Trujillo of Walnut Creek, Calif.’s Girard & Vinson, didn’t return calls seeking comment. Nor did Breen’s principal. In its Oct. 3 letter to the school, the ACLU said current events require schools to promote tolerance, unity and respect. The sign, the organization said, hurts and isolates children of minority faiths. “Breen Elementary School in Rocklin is displaying a religious message that is dividing its students along religious lines,” an ACLU statement reads. “On behalf of a parent whose child attends the school and is greatly troubled by the religious sign, we sent a letter stating that a religious message on a public elementary school violates the California and United States Constitution.” White said the school’s lawyers told the ACLU the sign was constitutional and would stay, and they haven’t heard a peep from the organization since. Nor would attorneys at the ACLU — not usually a shy bunch — return telephone calls about the letter and any plans to file suit. Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice has called the letter “out of step with the law” and “absurd.” The organization also announced it would defend — at no cost — Breen, or any other school sued for displaying the words, “God Bless America.” “There is no legal reason why a school district cannot display a sign that said, ‘God Bless America,’ if it so desires,” said ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow. “The message is constitutionally protected speech and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, it is clear that the ACLU is attempting to censor a California school district by pressuring it to remove the sign.” According to press accounts, several schools around the country have taken down similar signs on the advice of their lawyers. But Sekulow said the phrase is patriotic in its essence and cannot be seriously contended to convey significant religious meaning. John Sims, a constitutional law professor at Sacramento, Calif.’s McGeorge School of Law, said religion in schools has been an untidy area of the law all along and the recent attacks have only served to bring it back out into the open. “The conflict is attributable to this moment in history,” he said. In light of the way the attacks have changed the mood in America, Sims said the question that must be answered is: Is the message about patriotism or about God? “There is nothing unconstitutional about a patriotic message,” he said. “The hard part is figuring out what’s patriotic and what’s religious.” Sims said the use of the phrase may be innocent, since in war, like professional football, everyone tends to say God is on their side. He said he doesn’t think those who object to the sign will have an easy time convincing a court that the slogan, which has become ubiquitous since Sept. 11, is intended to force students to believe in Christianity. Sims points to other common phrases and celebrations that invoke religious themes, but have been found by the courts to be secular in meaning, including Christmas and the Pledge of Allegiance, with its “one nation, under God.” “Nobody has been successful in saying that’s unconstitutional,” he said. “It doesn’t really say anything about God.” Still, Sims isn’t surprised by the ACLU’s stance because the organization has a long history of taking unpopular stances. “They are very conscious of the fact that there’s the temptation — even greater in times of crisis — for the religious majority to assert that religion is the path,” he said. “That can be a powerful message in times of crisis. There is certainly a potential for government to attempt to weaken the constitutional safeguards that were set up to keep church and state separate.” Sims doesn’t expect the issue to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. “As the crisis dissipates, occasions for conflict will taper off,” he said. In the past, the high court has rejected arguments that “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency violates the Constitution. Last year, the high court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 528 U.S. 1002, that a school district policy of student-led prayer at high school football games was unconstitutional. In 1991 the California Supreme Court in Sands v. Morongo Unified School District, 53 Cal.3d 863, said religious invocations and benedictions at graduation ceremonies were unconstitutional. “It has no business being in a school,” said San Francisco attorney Michael Von Loewenfeldt, a partner at Kerr & Wagstaffe. “Clearly it’s a reference to a Judeo-Christian God.” He said a court challenge will center not on how the school perceives the message, but how those opposed to the sign perceive it. He adds that the First Amendment doesn’t get put on hold in a time of crisis. “The First Amendment applies year around,” he said. “It’s not religious freedom until something bad happens.” Until the ACLU signals its intentions, it’s unclear how long the sign will remain at the school. White said she changes the sign every month, so she doesn’t know if it will be replaced by an announcement for student photos, or what. ‘We’ll see what happens,” she said. “If there’s litigation involved, [our lawyers say] we’ll keep it up.”

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