U.S. District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger of northern Florida is one smart guy.
On Wednesday, he gave a Florida public school quite a scolding, followed by a very important constitutional law lesson.
Two teachers at the school included a song called "In God We Still Trust" by the country group Diamond Rio into the program of a third-grade class' end-of-the-year assembly.
The song's lyrics include these lines: "There's no separation...We are one nation under Him...Now there are those among us, Who want to push Him out...From the schoolhouse to the courthouse, They're silencing His word, Now it's time for all believers, To make our voices heard."
The song was played during class at least three times and was practiced by the whole class at least once. If students objected to the song, they were told they didn't have to sing it during the assembly – but they'd also have to forgo participating in the event at all.
After learning about the song, some parents filed a lawsuit against the teachers, the principal and St. John's County School for imposing "sectarian religious beliefs onto elementary public school students and violat[ing] their right to free exercise under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution."
The school voluntarily removed the song from the program after the lawsuit was filed, but Judge Schlesinger (an appointee of former President George H.W. Bush!) rightly said that was too little, too late.
In his opinion ordering the school to keep the song out of the assembly, he drove home the First Amendment's promise of church-state separation, even citing Thomas' Jefferson's "wall of separation," in his opinion.
Not only did he call the lyrics "patently religious" and "proselytizing," he said, "The lyrics to the song take aim at one [of] our nation's fundamental principles: the separation of church and state.
"The Constitution's prohibition of the state's 'establishment of religion' mandates that the government treat religions equally," he continued. "Inherently in this equal treatment is the separation of church and state, which ensures that the government does not make 'adherence to religion' relevant to a person's standing in the community.'
"By encouraging students to sing 'there is no separation, we are one nation under Him,' he concluded, "the school is effectively endorsing a religious view that is contrary to well-established constitutional law."
The judge noted that the school is under pressure from other parents to cave in and put the song back into the program. So he ordered it be kept out. Schlesinger also said, despite the school's voluntary removal of the song, the teachers had already infringed on the students' First Amendment rights and caused "irreparable injury."
"These lyrics endorse a specific viewpoint of preference for religious sectarianism," he wrote. "Further...this song antagonizes and degrades those whose beliefs differ from the ones espoused by its lyrics. ..."
This is a great decision, and AU hopes this Florida public school as been educated. And more importantly, we hope what they're teaching in music class doesn't reflect what's in their history curriculum.
For those of you who are curious, Diamond Rio's music video of "In God We Still Trust" can be found here.