An atheist group has threatened legal action against school districts across the state of Arkansas if they display the National Motto “In God We Trust” in compliance with a new state law.
Arkansas Act 911, enacted in April, requires the display of the National Motto in public schools as a patriotic and historic display “if funds are available.”
Benton Public School District has already announced that it intends to become the first school district in the state to post displays in compliance with the law.
But the American Atheists, founded by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, has issued a letter to more than 260 superintendents across the state, claiming the display is unconstitutional. The atheists are threatening to file suit in federal court if any school district complies with the new law.
The Orlando, Florida-based Liberty Counsel, has offered free legal advice and defense for the Bentonv school district.
Act 911 requires superintendents and administration officials of all state agencies to display the “In God We Trust” motto, the flag of Arkansas and the United States flag in all classrooms, libraries and any other public building “maintained or operated by state funds.”
It was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April. As stipulated in Act 911, the “In God We Trust” displays must be purchased with private funds and donated. Pleasant Hill Baptist Church has pledged to donate $300 for “In God We Trust” signs to every Benton public school.
“Our church discussed it very briefly [and decided], ‘Absolutely, that’s something we want to be a part of,'” Chris Reed, youth pastor of the church, told ArkansasMatters.com. “Though we may differ on what ‘In God We Trust’ means specifically, I think we can all agree that there’s a greater calling in our life that’s greater than us.”
“As a student pastor, I think it’s vital that we have that spiritual influence in our schools as much as possible,” Reed said.
Reed believes “In God We Trust” isn’t tied to one religion but one nation.
Modeled after Georgia law
Rep. Jim Dotson said he sponsored the legislation to have American history and heritage displayed throughout Arkansas. After researching similar laws in several other states, Dotson modeled the law after Georgia’s law.
Only three lawmakers voted against Dotson’s bill.
“In God We Trust” first appeared on the 2-cent coin in 1864 and has appeared on paper currency since 1957.
A law passed in a joint resolution by the 84th Congress (P.L. 84-140) and approved by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 30, 1956, declared “In God We Trust” must appear on American currency.
The motto has been challenged dozens of times, mostly by atheists, but has been consistently upheld by the courts.
The first case to challenge the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on U.S. money was Aronow v. United States, which went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in 1970. The federal law it challenged was 31 U.S.C. § 324a “the inscription ‘In God we Trust’… shall appear on all United States currency and coins.”
The court ruled:
“It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. … It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’ or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Congress has directed such uses. While ‘ceremonial’ and ‘patriotic’ may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has ‘spiritual and psychological value’ and ‘inspirational quality.'”
The National Motto has withstood legal challenges many times, said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
“‘In God We Trust’ has been the Florida motto since 1868 and is part of the state seal and was adopted as the National Motto in 1956,” he said. “The motto is on our currency and is not an establishment of religion.”
Liberty Counsel is a nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.