Judge rules Illinois school can print censored yearbook cover without ‘God Bless America’ slogan

A federal judge rejected an Illinois elementary school student’s plea April 16 to have her school print the words “God Bless America” on a yearbook cover she designed.

By refusing to grant a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade allowed the Ridgewood Elementary School in Rock Island to replace the slogan or use an alternative cover. The school claimed the design of the 12-year-old artist, Melissa DeLaRosa, conflicted with the separation of church and state.

Attorney Steven Ames, who represented the student, argued that the yearbook design was not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment based on court rulings that protected schools that mentioned or taught religion.

Although the court did not rule that using “God Bless America” on the yearbook cover was an Establishment Clause violation, the judge did say school officials were “rightly concerned” about the matter.

The judge, who issued his ruling from the bench, cited Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier as precedent for the school to alter the student’s design. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision gave administrators greater leeway to control some student publications.

Principal John Frieden said the yearbook has been sent to the printers with a new design. He said DeLaRosa asked the school not to use her artwork if she could not include the “God Bless America” slogan.

“Being a public school, we have to look after everybody,” Frieden said. “Knowing some of the families here, if [“God Bless America”] would have gotten on there, we would have been at the other end of the spectrum.”

McDade will rule on the student’s request for a permanent restraining order next month, but Ames said it is a moot point because the yearbook will have already been printed. Ames noted, however, that the judge could still find the school violated the student’s First Amendment rights.

SPLC View: One factor that apparently swayed the judge in this case was the age of the students who would receive the yearbook. In issuing his decision, he noted that elementary school students would have more problems than high school students discriminating between speech initiated by the school vs. that produced by students. As long as religious speech is student-initiated and produced, it is unlikely that a court would find a church/state problem in a similar case at the high school or college level. For more information on the topic of religious speech in student media, be sure to look for the upcoming Spring 2002 issue of the SPLC Report, which contains a full legal analysis on the topic.