Fact Check

'God Bless America' Banner Removal

Have schools and other municipal agencies have been ordered to remove banners displaying the phrase 'God Bless America'?

Published Oct 29, 2001

Claim:   Schools and other municipal agencies have been ordered to remove banners displaying the phrase 'God Bless America.'

Status:   Sort of.

Origins:   As

God Bless America

the slogan "God Bless America" has become more and more popular in light of recent events, debate continues over whether its use by government-related agencies should be considered a patriotic message or an unconstitutional display of a religious one.

One of the more recent tussles took place within Oklahoma's Broken Arrow school district, several of whose schools displayed "God Bless America" on their marquees. District officials said they received about 40 phone calls from patrons who "were not only unhappy but threatened to sue," complaining that the signs violated laws separating church and state, so they checked with the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) to inquire about the legality of using the phrase on school signs. According to the Tulsa World:

The OSSBA advised Broken Arrow officials that the motto "God Bless America" could be used but only if part of a patriotic display. "I told school districts as long as it was a patriotic message that was OK, but it cannot be used as a religious expression," said Julie Vogt, the OSSBA's director of policy services. She advised that putting the slogan on a sign with a flag or other patriotic symbols made the motto a patriotic display and therefore legal, she said.

The school's attorney advised differently, however:

[The] school also had sought advice from its attorney, Doug Mann, who was against putting the slogan up at all. "It's not just a simple issue of mixing items together and trying to call it a patriotic display," Mann said. "You cannot try to do indirectly what you can't do directly."

"Obviously the purpose of that (clause) is a religious message," he said.

Broken Arrow district superintendent Dennis Shoemaker maintained that the district office issued no directive to the individual schools; they merely passed along OSSBA's advice and allowed the schools to make their own decisions about what to do with their displays. Some of the schools took the words off their marquees, prompting another 150 phone calls asking that the slogans be restored. (Broken Arrow officials would not identify the schools that had used the slogan or

had removed it, saying they had been advised not to.) Indian Springs Elementary School, which has no school sign for posting messages, skirted the issue when a teacher parked her truck across the street from the school, taped signs saying "God Bless America" on it, and had the display signed by students and other teachers.

A similar message displayed on a marquee outside the Breen Elementary School in Rocklin, California, drew demands from the ACLU that it be removed as a "hurtful, divisive message." School district attorney Phillip Trujillo dismissed the group's assertion as "absurd" and maintained the words are a patriotic, not a religious, expression, and district officials declined to remove the slogan from the school's sign. The documents of both sides can be viewed on the web site of the Rocklin Unified School District.

Just a week later, Broken Arrow was back in the news when city officials ordered the phrase "God Bless America" removed from a fire station's windows. The words had been painted by a volunteer who had donated his time to many other fire stations in the area:

Firefighters at Station No. 2 had granted Derek Wunsch permission to paint the words on their fire station windows. Wunsch already had donated the same artwork on 20 other area fire stations, including 19 in Tulsa. "There isn't a fire station I did that I didn't get permission to do, whether from a captain, a district chief or an assistant chief," he said. "I had to do something. This is all I know how to do. I'm an artist."

City officials said the message wasn't the problem, but the failure of the fire station to obtain permission beforehand:

Broken Arrow officials said a city ordinance prohibits private citizens and employees from painting public buildings. And, they said, the firefighters at the station didn't have the authority to grant permission. "City property cannot be used as a public forum," city communications coordinator Wayne Bishop said.

To prove the point, two days after the city ordered the words "God Bless America" removed from the windows of Fire Station No. 2, City Manager Michael Kadlecik ordered 12 banners bearing U.S. flags and the phase "God Bless America" to be hung on every municipal building:

Bishop said the city probably would have bought patriotic banners sooner if Kadlecik hadn't been out of state all week at a meeting. "We wanted to clear up the misunderstanding on the part of people who thought we were fighting the phrase," he said. The new banners, expected to arrive late Friday, would be hung at all five of the city's fire stations, he said.

And in Wisconsin, a "God Bless America" sign was removed from Prarie View Elementary School after a resident complained and the Freedom from Religion Foundation requested that the sign be taken down. This action prompted Dave Strand, the president of the East Troy school board, to resign, proclaiming: "If my God had to be removed from the sign, then I will be removed as well from the board." The sign was soon put back up, along with new ones proclaiming "In God We Trust" and "United We Stand":

We wanted to show we weren't cowards and weren't backing down," Superintendent Robert Spence said. "We believe what we did was right, and we put them back up." Spence said the signs are patriotic and do not advocate religion.

Last updated:   8 March 2008


  Sources Sources:

    Cooper, Jay.   "BA School Officials Say Slogan Not Banned."

    Tulsa World.   22 September 2001   (p. 17).

    Kormanik, Beth.   "'God Bless America' Sign Back at School."

    [Milwaukee] Journal Sentinel.   12 October 2001.

    Associated Press. "Wisconsin School Board Member Quits After 'God Bless America' Sign Removed from Schoolyard."

    [Minneapolis] Star-Tribune.   12 October 2001.

    Associated Press.   "Critics Say School's 'God Bless America' Sign Violates Constitution."

    6 October 2001.

    Associated Press.   "City to Buy Banners After Fuss Over 'God Bless America.'"

    28 September 2001.

    Associated Press.   "'God Bless America' Signs Prompt Complaints at Broken Arrow Schools."

    21 September 2001.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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