Next church-state dispute: 'In God We Trust'

A case challenging a display of the national motto is one of many battles over religious references in public places.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The words appear on every dollar bill and US coin. They are displayed at the entrance to the US Senate and above the Speaker's chair in the House.

But when local officials in North Carolina placed "In God We Trust" on the front of the Davidson County Government Center, they soon found themselves in federal court facing a complaint that they were violating the separation of church and state.

The display was mounted in 18-inch letters that passing motorists could see on nearby Interstate 85. "If you are going to get sued, you may as well get sued for big letters," says Larry Potts, vice chairman of the Davidson County Commission.

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The case is one of an array of church-state battles across the country seeking to establish a bedrock answer to a difficult constitutional question: To what extent may the government bring God into the public square?

It is more than crosses, crèches, and menorahs. Last year the US Supreme Court considered whether repeating the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment's prohibition of government establishment of religion. And the justices are currently weighing the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property in Texas and Kentucky. Decisions in the Ten Commandments cases could come as early as Monday, or, at the latest, by the end of next month.

Legal scholars are hopeful the Ten Commandments opinions will provide a legal landmark, offering lower courts more precise guidelines to help judges resolve the growing number of church-state disputes.

At the center of the debate is whether the Constitution demands strict separation between church and state or whether it provides leeway to permit government acknowledgment of America's religious heritage. Others go further, saying the First Amendment bars establishment of a government-backed church but says nothing about government efforts to promote religiosity and faith-based morality.

The Davidson County debate over "In God We Trust" started in 2002. That's when Rick Lanier suggested posting the phrase on the side of the government center. At the time, Mr. Lanier was a county commissioner and a member of a local ad hoc group called the US Motto Action Committee, which was offering to pay for the display.

Not everyone on the county commission thought it was a good idea. Critics said it would be viewed as an endorsement of religion. Some said the commission might get sued.

Lanier noted that in 1956 Congress designated "In God We Trust" as the national motto. After nearly 50 years, he said, what judge would dare declare a local display of the national motto unconstitutional? The measure passed 4 to 2.

To Lanier and other supporters, the display was seen as a local response to the 9/11 terror attacks and an answer to a growing number of lawsuits seeking to remove any mention of God and religion from public life. "For the past three to four years we went from a gradual process with legal challenges from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and American Atheists to a fast-track effort to try to completely secularize our society," Lanier says.

He adds, "If you secularize and take God and our religious heritage out of [our society], then we open the door even wider to moral corruption and tearing down the very fiber that built this country."

Two local lawyers who conduct business in the county building objected to what they saw as the use of public property to present a religious message. "It is the semantic equivalent of putting up a sign that says Davidson County believes in the Christian God," says Michael Lea, a Thomasville, N.C., lawyer who filed suit with Charles Lambeth to have the display removed.

"I am a Christian and have been on the governing board of the local church. It is not that I am anti-Christian," he says. "I just don't think it should be up on a government building."

Faced with the prospect of open-ended litigation costs, the county commission began to reassess its decision. But the US Motto Action Committee responded by gathering 18,000 signatures on a petition supporting the motto. The group also raised $10,000 from local churches and individuals to cover the legal defense.

In May 2004, US District Judge William Osteen upheld the display. "The phrase 'In God We Trust' is not inherently religious, particularly when considered in light of its history as this nation's official motto," he wrote.

Messrs. Lambeth and Lea appealed. On May 13, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the display. A reasonable observer would know "In God We Trust" is the national motto, not an endorsement of religion by Davidson County, the appeals panel ruled.

George Daly, a Charlotte civil rights lawyer, argued the case challenging the display. He says the Fourth Circuit got it wrong and he plans to file an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

"You look up over the door and it says, 'We trust in God' - we, the government of Davidson County," Mr. Daly says. "That is direct government speech," he says, "and that is endorsement."

Daly adds, "The government, of course, endorses what the government says. I thought I passed the endorsement test hands down, but what the Fourth Circuit says is, 'No, no, no - everyone knows what the national motto is and that it is patriotic.' "

If the Supreme Court strikes down one or both of the Ten Commandments displays in question, that could make Daly's appeal much easier. Still, he faces another obstacle.

"I just detect a great reluctance in the courts to want to allow religion to become the subject of a trial," he says. "But being a lawyer, I want a trial."

In addition to the Fourth Circuit, three other federal appeals circuits - the Fifth, Ninth, and 10th - have upheld the national motto against Establishment Clause challenges. Furthermore, the Sixth Circuit has upheld the constitutionality of Ohio's state motto: "With God, All Things Are Possible."

Davidson County isn't the only place posting the national motto on public property.

The American Family Association (AFA) in Tupelo, Miss., has sponsored a campaign to display 11-by-14-inch "In God We Trust" posters in school classrooms and other public buildings. At least 18 states have passed laws supporting the posters.

"We have hundreds of thousands of posters in 18 states and not a single lawsuit filed. I think that speaks for itself," says Randy Sharp, an AFA spokesman.

"Under a strict separation of church and state, even this type of endorsement of religion would not stand," says Rob Boston of the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But the courts have never adopted a standard that strict. They have always carved out an exemption for certain types of civil religion, and this is another example of that."

He adds, "We haven't been involved in a case like this or taken any of them on simply because it is usually an exercise in futility. The courts aren't going to declare something like this unconstitutional."

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