By Rob Boston
Posting “In God We Trust” signs in city and county government buildings has become all the rage in California.
The drive is spearheaded by a Bakersfield woman named Jacquie Sullivan who persuaded officials in her town to adopt the motto and then took the crusade to other cities. The most recent town to approve the motto is Port Hueneme in Ventura County. The vote was 4-1.
Mayor Sylvia Muñoz Schnopp explained her vote in favor of the motto this way: “You see, I also do this on behalf of our men and women who defend our freedoms, those who are military veterans, reservists and active-duty personnel who live in our community.”
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The only problem with that, of course, is that a motto that references God does not include all veterans or active-duty personnel. Some members of the military are non-believers. Others are involved in Wicca and Paganism and don’t recognize a traditional God concept.
In fact, the sole dissenting vote in Port Hueneme came from a veteran.
“I was born in the Bible Belt and served in the U.S. Navy to defend the rights of all Americans,” remarked councilman Ellis Green. “I’m a devout Christian. The concept of separation of church and state is real. It’s not imagined. It is not our right as a council to impose our deity on anyone.”
Good for you, Mr. Green.
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As I explained to the Ventura County Star, it’s not really possible to challenge these religious postings in court. Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto in 1954 (partly in reaction to fears of “godless communism” in the Soviet Union). A few cases have been filed challenging the use of the phrase on money, but they haven’t been successful.
Federal courts have ruled that government’s use of the phrase “In God We Trust” is an acceptable form of something the courts dub “ceremonial deism” – that is, the tendency of the state to use generic religious language for nationalistic purposes.
My guess is that the courts are afraid to make a tough and unpopular call and devised ceremonial deism as a dodge. Under our Constitution, the government is supposed to be neutral on questions of theology – and yes, that includes whether God exists. Feel free to hash that out with your friends and family. Stand on a soapbox and expound on your view in a public park. Distribute fliers encapsulating your view of God. Start a website to explain it all. Join with like-minded believers (or non-believers) for fellowship.
It’s your right as an American to have an opinion about faith. The government, however, should not have one – nor should it endorse your view of theology over your neighbor’s.. When the government posts “In God We Trust” in public buildings and stamps it on money, it is expressing an opinion: That God exists. That there is only one God. That this God is worthy of our trust.
The message isn’t subtle: If you agree with these statements, you are the better American, you’re the “real” American. Those who don’t are second-class citizens.
No matter how you slice it, that’s not neutrality toward religion.