‘In God We Trust’: Since 2017, Several States Have Passed Bills Requiring (or Allowing) the Display in Schools, Reigniting Church-State Debate
As students start the 2018-19 year, some may find their schools are focal points for a contentious national lesson on the divide between church and state.
Six primarily Southern states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and Arizona — have approved legislation since last year explicitly requiring or allowing public schools to display the words “In God We Trust,” which has been the national motto since 1956 and is inscribed on American currency. Returning students in Florida and Tennessee are seeing the required displays for the first time, while those in Alabama, where such displays are optional, will likely see a slower rollout.
Other states are poised to follow suit. States such as South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma have proposed similar bills, and in Kentucky, state Rep. Brandon Reed recently drafted a bill for the 2019 General Assembly that would require each public elementary and secondary school in the state to place the motto in “a prominent location” within the school, such as an entryway, cafeteria, or common area. If it passes during the next legislative session, it will go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.
“In a time of rampant drug use [and] increasing school violence … we need God in our schools now more than ever,” Reed said in a press release. (Reed is an evangelical Christian minister and calls himself a “Warrior 4 Christ” in his Twitter bio.)
Rob Boston, a spokesman with Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation has largely spurred the slew of recent legislation. The caucus’s Project Blitz initiative aims to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs” and has disseminated guidance — namely a 116-page manual with bill templates — for legislators’ use. Exhibiting “In God We Trust” in schools is the manual’s first bill recommendation.
On a broader scale, Boston said the recent push could also be attributed to a “more conservative stamp” on the federal government during Trump’s presidency that’s emboldened activists and legislators. He noted that pending changes to the U.S. Supreme Court following Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement may have brought an added sense of urgency.
Before 2017, at least three states — Virginia, Mississippi, and Colorado — had either passed legislation or enacted resolutions to place “In God We Trust” in public schools, though a 2015 Mississippi state audit revealed that only 22 of the 46 reviewed districts had the motto “properly posted.” Laws in Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana require the motto, while laws in Arizona and Alabama make the displays optional.
The resulting debate has pitted critics, who say religious proselytization has no place in public schools, against those who believe embracing a national and historic motto that references generic “ceremonial deism” shouldn’t ruffle any feathers.
One of the primary concerns about promoting “In God We Trust,” Boston said, is that it could isolate non-religious students.
“The first duty of a public school is to make sure all of its students feel welcome and safe and valued,” he told The 74. “And public education can’t meet that goal when it is sending the message to some of its students … that if they don’t believe in God or they’re skeptical, that there’s something wrong with them.”
State Rep. David Standridge, who sponsored Alabama’s bill, countered that his legislation’s intent is to re-instill a feeling of “security” for teachers and students as the nation reels from a “growing number” of school shootings. He added that Alabama’s bill, which went into effect on July 1, is optional because allowing permission “was a better route” than forcing a controversial mandate.
The motto “does recognize a higher power, but it’s definitely not an intent to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he told The 74. “It’s just like in our pledge of allegiance with ‘one nation under God.’ It’s our national motto.” Blount County in Alabama will likely be the first to set up the displays, and could craft a policy within the next month, according to AL.com.
Though legal battles stemming from these bills are possible, both Boston and Standridge acknowledged that courts have often sided with supporters of the national motto. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, for example, ruled in May 2014 that the use of “In God We Trust” on currency does “not have a religious purpose or advance religion.” Congress has also reaffirmed the national motto on multiple occasions, including with a 396-9 House vote in 2011. However, more intrusive infringements to church and state separation, such as bible literacy courses in public schools, have seen more successful legal pushback.
Maybe the answer is a national motto that speaks for everyone, Boston said. He pointed to the country’s unofficial motto, E pluribus unum — “out of many, one.”
“I think what we need to do is get back to the spirit of that motto,” he said.
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