A battle is brewing over proposed legislation urging all Pennsylvania’s public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust.”
On Tuesday, a bill dubbed the National Motto Display Act cleared the state House on a 179-20 bipartisan vote.
Proponents hail emblazoning the motto in school buildings statewide as a potential “unifying force” with moral and historical value, the phrase’s roots dating to 2-cent coins printed at the height of the Civil War.
“Our country is very divided today, and celebrating the motto can help unite us,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, a longtime advocate for promoting public displays of the motto and its historical ties to Pennsylvania. “Whether you believe in God or not, it’s here to inspire us.”
Opponents, including secular advocacy groups and some school solicitors, blast the attempt as an inappropriate — and potentially unconstitutional — overreach blending church and state.
“It equates God-belief and religious piety with patriotism, and that’s wrong to do in public schools where students are of all religions and of no religion, and they are young and impressionable,” argued Elizabeth Cavell, staff attorney with the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group sued Saccone and others over a 2012 resolution declaring that year to be “The Year of the Bible.”
“Once again, the Pennsylvania Legislature is just wasting taxpayer time and dime on these religious overtures,” Cavell said.
Saccone, who is up for re-election in November, tried unsuccessfully to pass a nearly identical In God We Trust bill in 2013 and co-sponsored this year’s version.
“This time, I think we’re going to get it through the Senate,” Saccone said by phone Tuesday. “I don’t think the governor even would dare veto this. It’s too American.”
Saccone’s Democratic opponent, attorney Peter T. Kobylinski, did not return a call for comment, nor did Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.
Senate leadership has not reviewed the bill nor determined which Senate committee may take it up, said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.
House Bill 1640 , introduced by Jefferson County Republican state Rep. Cris Dush, would encourage — but not require — that the national motto be posted in all public school buildings, along with the Bill of Rights.
“It’s not a mandatory requirement; in fact, they can already put it up in their schools,” said Saccone, noting several districts do. “It’s just that they’re afraid to because they’ve been misled by society. They’ve been beaten down by this idea that they can’t do this, and they’re wary.”
Among school solicitors skeptical of the concept is Ira Weiss, whose Downtown firm represents 14 Western Pennsylvania districts, including Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“My advice for a district would be to avoid a potentially expensive litigation and to not get involved with this,” said Weiss of Weiss Burkardt Kramer.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, however, said he’s “not aware of any case law that throws out the national motto as a violation of the Establishment Clause,” which precludes lawmakers from sanctioning a religion.
For years, the Bakersfield, Calif.-based In God We Trust America Inc. has been pushing the motto’s display in more than 650 municipalities nationwide, and courts generally have upheld its use.
“Schools, of course, are different and more sensitive,” Ledewitz said, “but I don’t think that a challenge would be successful if the motto was simply displayed more or less independently” or beside historical context, as opposed to alongside religious icons or the likes of the Ten Commandments.
The push for the national motto occurs as more Americans are shying from organized religion.
Still, the overwhelming majority believes in God, even those who don’t attend or belong to a particular religion, the latest Pew Research Center polling shows.
“Nobody is telling them that they have to worship God by putting those words in our buildings,” said the Rev. Todd Wentworth, music pastor at First Baptist Church in Butler.
More than 80 percent of millennials say they believe in God, compared to 92 percent of those in the Silent and Baby Boom generations.
“Religion is divisive,” Cavell said. “It’s something that makes insiders of the majority-students — the god-believers who understand themselves to be included in the ‘we’ of ‘In God We Trust’ — and that’s not all students by any stretch.”