West Marion Elementary School in Marion, North Carolina, is at the center of controversy after educators ordered a six-year-old girl to remove the word “God” from a poem she was slated to deliver at a Veteran’s Day event. The first grader intended to use the opportunity to honor her two grandfathers who fought during the Vietnam War.
The contentious line that led the school to take action was, “He prayed to God for peace, he prayed to God for strength” — clearly a reference to her relatives’ personal, wartime invocations. After a parent allegedly heard of the inclusion of a higher power, he or she complained. The school, apparently working diligently to balance church versus state concerns, then decided to tell the child to remove the line.
“The discussion [about the poem] occurred between myself, the principal and the assistant principal at West Marion,” 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.”
After consulting and considering the law, the school decided that allowing the line would constitute an endorsement of “one single religion over another.” Some in the Marion community, though, are concerned that the young girl’s First Amendment rights were violated when she was told that she could not utter God’s name during the Nov. 8 event.
One district employee, Chris Greene, spoke out at a Board of Education meeting this week, explaining that the school was guilty of “hushing the voice of a six-year-old girl.” He contended that she was not trying to pray or coerce others to engage in a conversation with God, but that the first grader was simply explaining what her grandfathers had done in their time of need.
“She was told that she was not allowed to say the word God during this program,” Greene said. “Being a six year old, and not knowing her rights, she did what she was told.”
But not everyone agrees, as Greene does, that an apology to the young girl is warranted. In an interview with McDowell News, Ken Paulson, president and chief executive of the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., said that the school was within its rights to remove “God” from the poem.
“Courts have consistently held up the rights for students to express themselves unless their speech is disruptive to the school,” Paulson maintains. “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.”
Because the event was planned and not spontaneous, Paulson said that the school could have potentially run into church versus state trouble. The audience was “captive” in that it had nowhere to go if members did not want to hear “God” be mentioned. In the end, he agreed with the school’s assessment and actions (so far, the girl’s family has been silent about the matter).
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(H/T: Fox News’ Todd Starnes)