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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.