‘In God we trust’ bill in Pa. House promotes a divisive religious message

    I have serious problems with a bill sponsored by Pa. Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny), requiring Pennsylvania public school districts to post “In God We Trust” in every school building because it promotes a religious, rather than a historical message.

    A bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Allegheny) will require Pennsylvania public school districts to post “In God We Trust” in every school building under legislation that advanced out of a committee in the state House of Representatives last week. The bill passed by a 14-to-9 vote, with only one Democrat and one Republican crossing party lines.

    I have serious problems with this bill. First the bill clearly promotes a religious, rather than a historical message. Congress did not authorize the use of “In God We Trust” as the national motto until 1956 in response to the Red Scare. Although some claim the words “In God We Trust” are deeply rooted in our country’s religious heritage, a look at the motto’s history reveals that the Founding Fathers never intended these words — or any other religious reference — to become the country’s motto. In fact, when originally commissioned to create a Great Seal for the country, our founders, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, devised the motto as “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “from many, one.” In more recent years, the words “In God We Trust” have served as a rallying cry for those who wish to promote a particular Christian faith.

    Even the bill’s language unabashedly notes the current motto’s Christian origin. This religious viewpoint underlies the main problem with HB 1728: public schools should not be in the business of promoting one particular religious faith or any religious faith at all. The motto’s placement in public school buildings would exclude certain students and community members whose religious views do not align with the majority.

    Even though the motto “In God We Trust” has been upheld as constitutional, it does not mean that the words’ placement in public schools would necessarily be constitutional. Courts have found that students in the classroom are a “captive audience” and are therefore “particularly vigilant in monitoring” whether religious beliefs are introduced into public schools. Furthermore, federal courts have found that religious texts placed on government property are not shielded from constitutional scrutiny merely because they have a historical significance.

    In conclusion, I write to express our position that the words “In God We Trust” are divisive and convey the impression of school-sponsored religion. There are numerous places for religious proclamations to be made — our public schools should not become one of them.

    Ed Joyce is president of the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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