- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The City Council of Chesapeake, Virginia, last week unanimously approved displaying “In God We Trust” on a plaque at City Hall in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the national motto.

Those four words often pique atheists and advocates for keeping church and state separate. And groups like the Washington state-based Original Motto Project are lobbying lawmakers to revive the country’s first motto — E Pluribus Unum (“From many, one” in Latin).

But the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation has found a host of individuals and local governments across the country willing to display “In God We Trust” as part of its campaign to spotlight the phrase.

“The response has been overwhelming,” said Rep. J. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who launched the foundation in 2005. “In the last two years, more than 1.6 million Americans have displayed ‘In God We Trust,’ and more are joining every day.”

Mr. Forbes and his wife, Shirley, a foundation board member, attended last Tuesday’s Chesapeake City Council session, where lawmakers voted 7-0 to create a public presentation of the motto and make City Hall the 638th government building to do so.

“As our founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence, our inalienable rights come from our God, not our government,” said Councilwoman Suzy Kelly, who submitted the proposal. “Displaying ‘In God We Trust’ in City Hall or in any government hall where elected officials enact legislation makes perfect sense.”

Before the vote, Councilwoman Debbie Ritter said she had spent several hours researching decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court to verify the constitutionality of displaying the phrase.

Some argue that showcasing the motto in schools, courthouses and government buildings violates the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause — the section of the First Amendment that bars Congress from passing legislation that respects “an establishment of religion.”

Robert Ray, executive director of the Original Motto Project, says “In God We Trust” neglects to represent a significant portion of the U.S. population.

“The use of ‘In God We Trust’ on government property gives the impression that those without a belief in a god are second-class citizens,” says Mr. Ray, a lifelong atheist and humanist. “The current motto is simply the wedge used to crack the wall of separation that Thomas Jefferson wrote about in his letter to the Danbury Baptists on separation of church and state.”

The Board of Commissioners for the city of Saluda, North Carolina, agreed. In March the lawmakers unanimously voted not to display “In God We Trust” in City Hall, saying it would ostracize citizens with non-Christian or secular beliefs.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, Michael Newdow, an atheist lawyer from California, has filed several lawsuits in recent years challenging the national motto, the Pledge of Allegiance and even the words “so help me God” in the presidential oath of office.

No court case against the motto has succeeded. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled the motto is a “patriotic or ceremonial character” that doesn’t sponsor religious exercise. And former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor defended it while on the U.S. Supreme Court, saying it’s possible to “refer to the divine without offending the Constitution.”

“What the Chesapeake City Council is doing is specifically encouraged and authorized by Virginia law, which is more than a decade old,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Virginia General Assembly passed several laws that protect the rights of citizens to disply the motto.

Dawn Matheson, a Chesapeake native, says the vote surprised her because she had assumed it already was on display.

“‘God’ is many things to many different people,” said Ms. Matheson. “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and many other religious groups believe in God — though they may describe him or her differently.

“To me, it seems reasonable that we honor the history of the motto which represents the beliefs of the majority of the country,” she said.

Ms. Kelly got the idea to support the motto from a pamphlet she received from the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, describing the “In God We Trust” campaign. She said she felt compelled to support the motto that has long been part of the American identity.

“In God We Trust” first appeared on coins produced by the U.S. Mint during the Civil War. But it wasn’t until President Dwight Eisenhower approved a joint resolution by the 84th Congress on July 30, 1956, that it became the national motto.

“This is a bipartisan issue that unites people across geographic, political and social lines and reminds us there is something bigger than ourselves,” said Mr. Forbes, who urges people to display it in their homes and on their cars.

In the days following Chesapeake’s vote, Ms. Kelly and Ms. Ritter say they’ve received an outpouring of support from residents.

“When I speak with people, they often indicate how they feel our country has turned away from its founding principles,” said Ms. Kelly. “This vote has given hope to many.”

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