When I think of songs that might be appropriate for a public elementary school graduation, one that does not come to mind is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA.”
The song, which isn’t even very good, talks about not forgetting those who died preserving freedom for Americans. I like that sentiment personally, but the concept might be a little over the head of your average elementary schooler.
It also asks God to bless the USA. It’s right there in the title, and it’s constitutionally problematic because public schools aren’t supposed to be in the business of promoting religion, even if it’s not a specific religion. Honestly, the idea that God favors one country is fraught with all kinds of theological subtexts that are best left to parents and clergy to discuss with children if they believe it necessary.
If God “blesses” us, does this mean he endorses our military policies and desires the same outcome as President Barack Obama does? If God “blesses” us in particular, why did the attacks of 9-11 succeed?
That’s why I was happy to see that Greta Hawkins, principal of a school on Coney Island, N.Y., decided that “God Bless the USA” would be removed from the June 20 graduation program at her school.
According to CBS New York, school officials said the lyrics for the song were not age appropriate, and the report quoted Hawkins as saying that “we don’t want to offend other cultures.”
Asking God to bless America could certainly be offensive or alienating to humanists, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus or anyone who values church-state separation. It was absolutely the correct decision.
Hawkins was also within her rights as a public school principal to pick and choose graduation songs. Federal courts have addressed this issue before and said that school officials have broad discretion in these matters.
Hawkins happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but there is no evidence that her decision on the song has anything to do with her personal viewpoint. She is supporting a fundamental constitutional viewpoint that happens to coincide with her personal belief.
For her actions, Hawkins, who is African American, has been subjected to a wave of racially fueled criticism that is truly appalling. She has received hate mail, with comments like “You are a filthy, dirty, ugly subhuman gorilla,” and “Let’s hope that AIDS will do what sickle cell anemia failed to do, exterminate your whole simian race,” the Daily News said.
Sadly that kind of reaction is pretty standard for unpopular decisions.
One song that the students will be allowed to sing at their graduation, however, is Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” I don’t know that “Baby” was a particularly strong choice from an educational standpoint.
I’m told that the song is about a boy’s first love, which is a little over the head of a demographic that probably still thinks the opposite sex has “cooties,” though at least the chorus is pretty simple: “Baby, baby, baby oooh/ Like baby, baby, baby nooo/ Like baby, baby, baby oooh/ I thought you'd always be mine (mine).”
Fortunately quality of songs is not mandated by the Constitution. If it were, Bieber would certainly not pass muster for this or any other graduation. But if this is what the school wants, they have the discretion to use it, and it raises no First Amendment issues at all, unlike that paean to “divine patriotism,” “God Bless The USA.”