ILLINOIS — A federal judge rejected an elementary school student’splea Tuesday to have her school print the words "God BlessAmerica" on a yearbook cover she designed.
By refusing to grant a temporary restraining order, U.S. DistrictJudge Joe Billy McDade allowed the Ridgewood Elementary School in Rock Island to replace the sloganor use an alternative cover. The school claimed the design ofthe 12-year-old artist, Melissa de la Rosa, conflicted with theseparation of church and state.
Attorney Steven Ames, who represented the student, argued thatthe yearbook design was not a violation of the Establishment Clauseof the First Amendment based on court rulings that protected schoolsthat mentioned or taught religion.
"The school district has said the word ‘God’ cannot appearon its yearbook cover because students and the public may thinkthe school is trying to promote religion," Ames said. "Thisis the same school district that teaches its students to recitethe Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase ‘one nation under God.’"
Although the court did not rule that using "God BlessAmerica" on the yearbook cover was an Establishment Clauseviolation, the judge did say school officials were "rightlyconcerned" about the matter.
One factor that apparently swayed McDade was the age of thestudents who would receive the yearbook. In issuing his decision,he noted that elementary school students would have more problems thanhigh school students discriminating between speech initiated bythe school vs. that produced by students.
"[McDade] felt the school had the discretion to decidewhat was printed on the cover," he added.
The judge, who issued his ruling from the bench, cited HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier as precedent for the school toalter the student’s design. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decisiongave administrators greater leeway to control some student publications.
Principal John Frieden said the yearbook has been sent to theprinters with a new design. He said de la Rosa asked the schoolnot to use her artwork if she could not include the "GodBless America" slogan.
"Being a public school, we have to look after everybody,"Frieden said. "Knowing some of the families here, if ["GodBless America"] would have gotten on there, we would havebeen at the other end of the spectrum."
McDade will rule on the student’s request for a permanent restrainingorder next month, but Ames said it is a moot point because theyearbook will have already been printed. Ames noted, however,that the judge could still find the school violated the student’sFirst Amendment rights.