Advancing Religious Liberty
10/16/13 at 02:10 PM 0 Comments

"God Bless America": Teaching a Constitutional Lesson During Constitution Week

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Author: Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham

“God Bless America.” We hear these words all the time—whether at the end of presidential speeches or in Irving Berlin’s beloved song, whether at patriotic gatherings or even major sporting events. And they summarize the feelings of countless Americans who love their country and her religious heritage and who take pride in the way she has protected religious freedom for so many for so long.

Thankfully, these words can once again be displayed publicly in the library of a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina. But it was not always so.

Back in September, a community group reserved the display case in the entryway of Fairview’s library, just as countless other groups had done. This group then set up a display about Constitution Week. Amid the American and Betsy Ross flags, the historic pictures, and the patriotic pewterware, it also included a small sign that said simply, “God Bless America.”

But a few days later, the sign went missing. When asked, library officials said that it could not be displayed. When asked whether anyone had complained about it, they admitted that no one had but observed that someone might.

For many folks, this would have been the end of the story. But thankfully, one concerned citizen noticed what had happened and resolved to do something about it by contacting Alliance Defending Freedom. As a result, we wrote the library a letter explaining that it had made three mistakes.

First, the First Amendment does not allow the government to limit what someone may say simply because someone else might not like it. This is the whole point of protecting free speech. Popular speech needs no protection because no one wants to silence it. So the First Amendment secures our freedom to say things that others would rather not hear.

Second, the First Amendment does not require public officials to go on a “search and conceal” mission for all things religious. This display represents the speech of a private community group and its members. And the Supreme Court has ruled at least seven times in the last thirty-two years that the government does not violate the Establishment Clause when it gives religious speakers the same access to a forum, like this display case, that it gives to other speakers. After all, the First Amendment exists to protect Americans’ religious expression.

Third, the First Amendment prohibits government officials from doing what the library did here: censoring speech due to its religious content. For decades, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that singling out religious speech and removing it from public view constitutes content and viewpoint discrimination, which blatantly violate the First Amendment.

After receiving our letter, the library quickly did the right thing. It reviewed the cases we highlighted and realized it had made a mistake. Then it contacted the group and restored the “God Bless America” sign to the display.

So Constitution Week was rather busy in Fairview. It began with library officials violating the Constitution by censoring a display that celebrated the Constitution. It ended with those same officials promptly correcting their error and respecting the constitutionally protected freedom of Americans to celebrate publicly our nation’s religious heritage.

But all of this happened because one person refused to accept the library’s “no” for an answer. Instead, in partnership with Alliance Defending Freedom, she chose to celebrate Constitution Week by respectfully insisting that the library allow its patrons to exercise the freedoms that the Constitution protects. And because she did, Mr. Berlin’s lyrics have a special significance to her this year: “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam—God bless America, my home sweet home.”

This post originally appeared here.

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