Religion

Why 'In God We Trust' On Police Cars Is A Magnet For Controversy

| by Nicholas Roberts
"In God We Trust.""In God We Trust."

Sheriff's Office deputies in Stephens County, Oklahoma became the latest law enforcement officers in the U.S. to add decals with the national motto, "In God We Trust," to police cruisers.

“Speaking for myself and our deputies, we all place our faith and our trust in God. This is something that I feel very strong about. I think in these times, it serves as a reminder of who you put your trust in," Sheriff Wayne McKinney told The Duncan Banner.

The decals were a sensation with police departments throughout the country in 2015, but they also attracted controversy in many towns where police departments decided to add them.

Opponents to the measure have argued the decals constitute the state endorsement of a particular religion, although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has previously ruled that the phrase "has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion."

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This is because "In God We Trust" was declared the national motto of the U.S. in 1956 in a Cold War-era decision, and so has historical significance beyond the phrase itself.

Lacking that historical context, the phrase definitely appears much more literal and appears to invoke religion. It is entirely understandable that Americans who identify as nonreligious -- if not necessarily atheist -- would take the decals to be containing a contemporary religious and political message rather than a historical one, if they did not know the exact history behind the phrase.

In China Grove, North Carolina, there was considerable controversy over the decision to add the decals.

“A lot of these officers put their lives on the line. That’s their belief. They believe in that and they are allowed to show that on the cars," supporter Sam Roberts told WSOC-TV.

Ray Roberts, the head of the Seattle-based Original Motto Project told WSOC-TV that separation of church and state was a key issue.

“This is not about majority rules. This is about separation of church and state. It is an imposition of religion by an authoritative government agency," he said.

While the decals have seemingly widespread support among officers and most citizens in the towns that have adopted them, the controversy and backlash against it is understandable.  

The critics of the decals have made important points about the political nature of the motto, even though they have not won any legal battles on the issue. More departments will likely add the decals in 2016, although the spread of the practice will probably initiate a lawsuit at some point.

Sources: The Duncan (Oklahoma) Banner, WSOC-TV / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons