After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two teachers at a New Jersey elementary school began tacking on the phrase "God bless America" after leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Saying the phrase was never mandatory, district leaders said, and the school's principal told NJ.com the tradition was rooted in patriotism, not the endorsement of particular religious beliefs.
Now, however, teachers will not be allowed to lead children in saying the phrase each morning, after the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the school board on Dec. 23, 2015.
"It is improper and unconstitutional for public school officials to have elementary school students invoking God's blessing," Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, told NJ.com on Jan. 5. "Students have the right to engage in religious messages on their own time, but not during official school assembly led by school officials."
NJ.com reported that students were required to utter the phrase after the pledge each morning, but the Courier-Post quoted Glenview Elementary School Principal Sam Sassano describing the phrase as "sort of a habit" that was always voluntary and never an official policy.
"We have never viewed this to have any religious ties," the superintendent said, adding that he was "a little taken aback" by the ACLU's letter.
In a letter sent to parents, Sassano said the school will "explore alternative methods of honoring the victims and first responders of the 9/11 tragedy."
Some parents were not happy with the decision.
"I understand [Sassano's] hands are tied," parent Kim Sergeant told the Courier-Post. "But it's still upsetting. We always prided ourselves on being [a] small school and doing this in a small setting, having this little tradition."
Parent Hector Diaz said "too many rules and regulations" were harming the country.
Students can continue to say, "God bless America," after each morning's pledge, but teachers will no longer utter the phrase.
Kerri Simon, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son at the school, said her children would continue the tradition.
"My brother is in the military," she said, "and I think it's a really nice way to honor our country."