It’s on our money, our license plates, and the president even used it in the State of the Union.
“In God We Trust.”
And now, our nation’s motto is stirring up controversy in South Carolina.
State Rep. Mike Burns’ bill would require schools to prominently display posters, saying “In God We Trust,” as well as the state motto, “Dum Spiro Spero” and its English translation, “While I breathe, I hope.”
The Republican lawmaker mirrored the bill on a law enacted last year in Arkansas that required the national motto, paired with the American flag, to be hung in schools and public buildings, if funding allows.
Burns says the proposal would produce minimal costs, which would come out of the Palmetto State’s operating budget. If passed, the Board of Education would design the posters.
He warned that our country is on a “slippery slope by pushing God out of the public square.” With this bill, he wants to educate students on the phrase that has lined coins for more than one and a half centuries.
“We’re not teaching those types of things [anymore,]” he said. “It’s not putting religion on someone to use the word God and say the word God in the public square.”
But some are questioning whether the proposed law is constitutional.
Education Committee member Robert Brown said he’s not sure how he’ll vote, but he is worried this bill violates the separation of church and state.
“If it flies in the face of the Constitution, I will not be in favor of it,” Brown said. “If we don’t have the money to support it, I will not be in favor of it.”
“It doesn’t matter if everyone wants this. What matters is: Does it comply with the Constitution?"
Burns said, however, that he is not concerned about the votes. He said his biggest force of opposition is time, and there are other more pressing issues, such as budget discussions, that will take priority in South Carolina’s legislature.
The bill could reach the state’s House Education and Public Works Committee as early as March, but even if it passes, federal courts could intervene.
Legal experts say the proposed legislation may have a difficult time standing up in court.
“Here, the purpose seems to be a religious purpose, and anytime there’s a religious purpose in passing legislation, the courts are going to strike it down,” said Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.
Black acknowledged the Supreme Court ruling in favor of “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency but says the defense of “ceremonial deism” – in other words, the motto’s longstanding nature – makes it more about tradition than religion and will not protect new developments incorporating the phrase.
“When someone comes forward and says: ‘We want to do something new, we want to put it in a new place,’ they’re not doing it out of ceremony,” Black said.
Both Burns and Brown said if the proposal is enacted, negative reaction from their constituents would be limited due to the state’s largely Christian population. However, Black says federal courts rule regardless of popularity.
“It doesn’t matter if everyone wants this,” Black told Fox News. “What matters is: Does it comply with the Constitution? Does it protect the people who are losing at the ballot box?”
At least 11 states allow or require the national motto to be displayed in schools and public buildings, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures and Freedom From Religion Foundation. State Rep. Jim Dotson introduced Arkansas’ bill and said there haven’t been any cases filed in reference to its institution.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes atheism and nontheism and is against any bill it considers a violation of church and state, said it would oppose any effort to pass the bill.
“We should have a national motto that we can put up in the school without imposing religion on a captive audience of school kids,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the organization. “It miseducates students. We live under a godless and secular Constitution.”