God may once again bless the USA at Stall Brook Elementary.
The Bellingham, Mass., school, under fire for changing the lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” to “We Love the USA” for an upcoming fourth-grade concert, reversed course Thursday after drawing a backlash from parents and hints of legal threats from Mr. Greenwood, who penned the 1984 tune.
District Superintendent Edward L. Fleury acknowledged in a statement that “political correctness” was the motivation behind a proposed change, but the school ultimately decided against booting “God” from the song.
“Students will be allowed to sing or not sing ‘God Bless the USA.’ … No other words will be substituted,” he said. “We believe the use of the word ‘God’ is acceptable in patriotic songs. The district has no intent to censor any patriotic songs. We are certainly sorry if this approach was perhaps considered as disrespectful. That was never the intent.”
The incident, while seemingly minor, touched a nerve in the debate over the place of religion and references to God in public schools.
Advocates for the separation of church and state blasted Stall Brook Elementary for using the song at all. Others, including many parents who flooded Facebook and other social media with criticism of the school, saw the move as another act of censorship designed to wipe away all traces of God from the public arena.
Mr. Greenwood even weighed in, telling Fox News on Thursday that he wouldn’t allow the school to use his song if they planned to remove “God” from the lyrics.
“The most important word in the whole piece of music is the word ‘God,’ ” he said. “We can’t take God out of the song. We can’t take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. We can’t take God off of the American currency.”
The debate is hardly new for the people of Massachusetts. Three years ago, an elementary school in the Bay State banned candy canes, stockings and other items associated with Christmas from its holiday gift shop, arguing that they promoted Christianity. Earlier this year, a family from Acton, Mass., sued its local school district and claimed the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was discriminatory against nonbelievers.
“Massachusetts, obviously, is one of the most liberal states in the country. We’re leading the way in trying to push God out of the public square, trying to push even the very reference to God out of our public schools,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. “It’s political correctness run amok … and now we’re moving children down this path of moral oblivion.”
Whatever their intent, Bellingham district leaders have drawn intense scrutiny of next week’s gathering, meant to showcase fourth-graders’ knowledge of the nation’s 50 states.
Amid the uproar Thursday, school officials initially decided to remove all songs from the event. They later changed their minds and put Mr. Greenwood’s tune back on the lineup.
“They shouldn’t have introduced this song into the program at all,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “When you have a religious song at a school event, that puts children who aren’t religious in a difficult position. The best way to keep controversies like this from arising is to keep religion out of formal school events. The school could have avoided all of this by not proposing a religious song in the first place.”
Apart from the word “God,” Mr. Greenwood’s song contains no religious, doctrinal or biblical references, instead presenting patriotism as a kind of civic religion.
In addition, almost all of the major U.S. patriotic songs - “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and late verses of “America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” - have at least a reference to God, and some have significantly more religious material.
By offering students a choice of whether to sing the song, the school is unlikely to find itself entangled in litigation, Mr. Luchenitser said.
“If the school is leaving it up to the students … that makes it harder to challenge this legally,” he said.