This week, the lyrics of a patriotic song composed at the end of the Great War by a Russian Jew were determined to be a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But, the determination was not made by any judge or jury. Rather, a public school’s lawyer put an end to elementary students saying, “God Bless America.”
Irving Berlin emigrated to the United States from Russia to become one of America’s most beloved songwriters. His song “Putting on the Ritz” came to define a generation, and “White Christmas” lives on still today in the holiday traditions of millions. But, Berlin may be most renowned for his patriotic anthem, “God Bless America.”
As the world emerged from World War I, Berlin tried to put to song the gratitude his heart felt. “Thanks America” and “Let’s Talk About Liberty” were not quite right. So, he turned to one of his half-written, long-discarded lyrics which became the tune we know and love today.
Still, it took another two decades for the song to take root in the hearts and minds of Americans. It was in 1938 on the eve of World War II that the song debuted on CBS radio one cold November evening. The song took off. Sheet music sold out. Baseball games adopted it as the notable repertoire sung during the playing of America’s pastime. And, as our troops became entrenched in battles across the globe, the sentimental ode to home warmed the hearts of our G.I.s at USO concerts.
After 9/11, the song took on a new meaning. Congressmen famously assembled on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sing Berlin’s tune. Once again, baseball parks paused in the middle of the seventh inning (even during the World Series) across the country to reflect on the tune. Its most famous lyric — “God Bless America!” — adorned overpasses and billboards across the country, reflecting the determination of patriots “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam.”
But, Berlin’s lyric is too much for one activist organization. Not far from where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field, Sabold Elementary School in Springfield, Pennsylvania this week put an end to end to its practice of saying “God Bless America!” at the conclusion of its morning announcements and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance over the school loudspeaker. This group of “atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers” sent a letter, condemning those three words as amounting to “a declaration of orthodoxy in religion that falsely equates piety with patriotism.”
Good grief. Such hyperbole may be expected from a group that routinely targets the slightest mention of religion in public with vague threats of litigation. What should be unexpected is that the school’s law firm — no doubt happily billing by the hour for the time it took to read the silly letter, advise the school, and respond with its own letter — responded, informing the association that the school ceased “the practice of announcing the slogan, ‘God Bless America.’”