Earlier this week, an elementary school in Haddon Heights stopped instructing students to say “God Bless America” after the Pledge of Allegiance after school officials were told by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey it was unconstitutional to do so.

(William Thomas Cain, Getty Images)

According to Ed Barocas, the legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, there have only been a handful of situations over the past decade when his organization felt compelled to step in and correct situations where the line between church and state had been crossed. When these issues do arise, however, Barocas said it’s important to address them.

“I think there’s a special concern when it regards school children as young as kindergarten who are obviously more impressionable, more subject to coercion,” he said.

Barocas said students should not be forced into situations where they have to opt out of a religious situation at school, “risking the status of being a pariah or troublemaker, or participating in a group exercise that pressures them into voicing a belief that runs counter to theirs and their parents."

He said this issue is clearly addressed in the U.S. Constitution.

“Schools can’t coerce or impose religion on children, parents, not public schools, decide how and whether to instill religion in their children,” Barocas said.

He also said school officials usually recognize “that it is in fact the parents and not the public school officials that (have) the responsibility and right to direct the religious upbringing of their children.”

Six years ago, the ACLU of New Jersey won a court order that called for the immediate suspension of a Point Pleasant Beach policy allowing for government-led prayer at municipal council meetings.

Barocas said that was important because “we should not have any of our citizens feel like they’re outsiders in their own community because they don’t share the majority’s religious beliefs. That’s what the founders of our country tried to make sure of in creating freedom of religion in our First Amendment.”

The bottom line, he said, is the U.S. Constitution clearly states “government, including schools can’t coerce or impose religion on children.”

At the same time, he said it’s important to note “students have a right to free speech, including religious speech on their own time, even on their own time within a school. The ACLU has defended and supported students who want to engage in religious speech.

Ten years ago, the ACLU fought to uphold an elementary school student’s right to sing the song "Awesome God" in a voluntary after-school talent show. School officials had refused to let the girl do perform the song because they feared it would give the impression the school favored religion. A court ruled the child should be allowed to sing the song.

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