Published January 13, 2015
In a rush that only picked up momentum after Sept. 11, legislatures across the country are passing laws which allow public school officials to post the national motto, "In God We Trust," in schools.
And even in states that haven't passed such laws, people like Clay County School Superintendent David Owens, near Jacksonville, Fla., are already nailing up God plaques.
"With things that are facing us today, like terrorism, I think we need a pulling-together of this country," Owens said. "If putting these mottos in the schools can help build patriotism, it has served its purpose."
While the movement picked up steam after Sept. 11, it actually began before, when the American Family Association, a Christian group in Tupelo, Miss., started clamoring for the words to be posted in schools. Mississippi lawmakers passed a law requiring the motto in every classroom about a year ago.
"America has a rich Christian, and really religious heritage," Tim Wildmon, the American Family Association's vice president, said. "If the president of the United States can be sworn in by placing his hand on the Holy Bible, certainly kids can know what the national motto is."
The organization has since asked its 200,000 members from all 50 states to contact lawmakers and push for similar laws.
And push they did. Although an "In God We Trust" bill in Indiana died in committee this month, Michigan passed a law in December that makes it clear that the motto can be hung in schools. Florida, Utah, Arizona, Virginia, Louisiana and New Jersey are considering similar legislation.
On Wednesday, Alabama was the latest state to join the parade. A bill allowing teachers and principals to post the motto in public schools sailed through a state Senate committee without a dissenting vote and headed for the full Senate.
"It's been tested for its constitutionality in federal court," said Michigan state Rep. Stephen Ehardt, a Republican. "It is secular. It's not a religious statement and it's something we should be proud of — it's our national motto."
Opponents say it isn’t secular at all, and that the latest attempts to post up the motto is a cynical, veiled campaign to use patriotism to bring religion into schools.
"If people are taking advantage of Sept. 11 to begin to refight the battle over whether the schools ought to be an institution charged with religious instruction, then that's a most unfortunate exploitation of the tragedies," Marc Stern, legal director for the Washington-based American Jewish Conference, said.
He said he is concerned that requiring the words in the classroom "will serve as a launching pad for further intrusion," but his organization isn’t fighting the bills.
"There are a lot of other things that are much less divisive that we suggest they could use," American Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman Emily Whitfield said. "George Bush said in our State of the Union address that our national motto should be 'Let's roll.' Maybe we should put that up there."
The ACLU has spoken against the measure in several states, though it has admitted that it probably would not win a court challenge.
The use of the phrase has withstood at least three federal court challenges, including one that led to a 1996 pro-motto ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Utah state Rep. Richard Siddoway, a Republican who wants to require every school to post "In God We Trust," said that taking away the motto might cause more harm than keeping it.
"If you're going to have to get rid of any mention of God and religion, you're going to have to get rid of the Declaration of Independence and you're going to have to get rid of the national anthem and, of course, the Pledge of Allegiance," he said.
The motto was first placed on coins by the U.S. Treasury in 1864, during the Civil War. In 1955, Congress passed a bill to have the motto placed on paper currency, and it first appeared on bills two years later. Congress passed a resolution in 1956 declaring "In God We Trust" the national motto.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.