A fundamentalist campaign to post "In God We Trust" in every public school classroom--an idea floated before state legislatures by rightwing religionists for at least a decade--has gained steam in the religion-equals-patriotism backlash following the Sept. 11 faith-based terrorist attacks.
While Sept. 11 is being bandied as the rationale for forcing a captive audience of schoolchildren to eye a religious slogan every day, the American Family Association announced its campaign to put " 'In God We Trust' in every classroom in America" back in May 2001.
The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, is run by Donald Wildmon, notorious for leading rightwing boycotts, especially against the entertainment industry, attacking everything from "All in the Family" and Harry Potter to "The Last Temptation of Christ." He served as co-chair of the Buchanan for President campaign.
It is no coincidence that the first (and to date) only state requiring "In God We Trust" to be posted in every classroom is AFA's home state, Mississippi, which passed such legislation last year.
Michigan saw passage of a law "encouraging" the posting of "In God We Trust" in all public buildings on Dec. 31. Some Michigan public schools are already posting the slogan.
Bills in various state legislatures appear to be tailored to make use of the AFA campaign, which is selling 11 x 14" "In God We Trust" posters. Many of the proposals require that the "In God We Trust" posting be 11 x 14" or larger, and contain wording that the motto was adopted by Congress in 1956, which just happens to appear on the AFA poster.
Congress had adopted the "In God We Trust" slogan at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, which undertook a national lobbying campaign during the height of 1950s zealotry. The original U.S. motto, chosen by a distinguished committee of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, is the Latin E Pluribus Unum (From Many, [Come] One).
A direct challenge of the religious motto has never been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, assisted by Colorado attorney Robert R. Tiernan, filed a federal lawsuit in 1994 challenging both the law adopting the religious slogan (1956), and the law requiring it to appear on all U.S. currency (1955).
An appeals court upheld a federal judge's decision not to hear the case, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Foundation's appeal asking for its day in court. Evidence of the unconstitutionality of the motto which the Foundation sought to take before a court was a national opinion poll by Chamberlain Research (900 adults, May 18-23, 1994), finding that 61% consider the motto "religious," 71% believe it endorses a belief in God, and a majority regard the motto as preferring religion over nonreligion.
As Foundation president Anne Gaylor says, the religious motto isn't even accurate: "To be accurate it would have to read 'In God Some of us Trust,' and wouldn't that be silly?"
Historically, the incursion of religious slogans and symbolism on public imprimatur or property has been the result of crusades by religionists.
"In God We Trust" appeared for the first time on a U.S. coin in 1864, directly as a result of a campaign by Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who suggested the motto to "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism" during the Civil War.
It gradually became customary to use the slogan. By 1938 it was on virtually every coin (but not dollar bills). In 1955 Congress mandated that it appear on all U.S. coins and currency. A $1 silver certificate bearing the legend first appeared in October 1957.
Similarly, the presence of most Ten Commandments monuments on public land, including many city halls, courthouses and a few state capitols around the nation, is due to a joint campaign by the religious Fraternal Order of Eagles, in cahoots with movie-spectacle director Cecil B. DeMille. The desire of Judge E.J. Ruegemer, an Eagles member, to see the Ten Commandments in courthouses (and to patriotically promote the granite industry of his home state of Minnesota) turned into a public relations coup for DeMille's 1956 epic, "The Ten Commandments."
Religionists, thwarted in attempts to force school prayer and place the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, see the national motto campaign as a back-door ploy to finally get "God" into classrooms.
"Friends of the First Amendment should take alarm at this campaign," warned Anne Gaylor. "We would hate to see any precedent created to force government-endorsed belief in a deity upon a captive audience of schoolchildren."
Some current legislation:
• Virginia is facing three separate "In God We Trust" bills. One, requiring "In God We Trust" to be posted in every courtroom, passed the House of Delegates and moved on to preliminary approval in the Senate Courts of Justice committee on Feb. 13 in a 10-3 vote. Dissenter Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, demurred: "I believe in God, but there are others who don't." Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Reston, objected that the bill's intent is to permit one religion to dominate others. Another bill requiring Virginia's public schools to post "In God We Trust" was approved 30-10 by the Virginia Senate. A similar bill passed the state's House of Delegates. (Each house needs to consider the other's bills.) Only Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw spoke against this bill, saying it trivialized the word "God." Yet a third Virginia bill would require "In God We Trust" to be posted in other public buildings.
• Arizona: A bill encouraging the posting of "In God We Trust" in Arizona public schools was killed in committee in early February. Still pending action is a bill promoted by state Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, a Mormon legislator who wants to require the motto be displayed in every classroom, school auditorium and school cafeteria. The Arizona Republic (Feb. 13, 2002) editorialized against the bills: "The Arizona Legislature does not need to cram patriotism and religion down the throats of schoolchildren," saying if the bill survives, supporters "should be condemned for a shameless, election-year promotion of their religion in public schools."
• Utah's house passed a bill in late January making it mandatory for all public schools to display "In God We Trust." The bill will now go to the Mormon-dominated state Senate.
• Florida's House Council on Lifelong Learning in mid-February unanimously passed a bill requiring school superintendents to allow "In God We Trust" to be posted prominently in schools. The bill now goes before the full House. Editorialized Florida Today (Feb. 13): "More than two centuries ago, British satirist Samuel Johnson astutely observed that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. "Were Johnson alive today, and aware of the goings on in the Florida Legislature, he might well conclude that public piety serves the same function. . . . the idea of posting 'In God We Trust' in public schools should go no further . . . Just because Congress long ago ignored the Constitution in approving the motto for some U.S. currency notes and coins, that's no reason for the Florida Legislature to repeat the mistake."
• Indiana's State Senate voted in February to put the motto in 60,000 classrooms across the state. The bill goes before the Indiana house.
• Connecticut Rep. Art O'Neill, R-Southbury, introduced a bill in February to place "In God We Trust" in every public classroom. Countered Senate President Pro Tem Kevin Sullivan, D-West Hartford: "I don't trust politicians who come up with ideas like this to make headlines."
• Louisiana: The Tangipahoa Parish public schools voted in February to distribute the AFA "In God We Trust" placards with a recommendation, but not a mandate, to display them. State Rep. Almond Gaston Crowe, Jr., R-Pearl River, donated 100 posters and claims 600,000 AFA posters have been given to the nation's schools.