In an interview about adding the phrase "In God We Trust" to his deputy's patrol cars, Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney of Oklahoma said he doesn't expect to face any pushback or lawsuits.
Obviously he hasn't been keeping up with the national headlines.
At a time when groups like Wisconsin's Freedom From Religion Foundation and local American Civil Liberties Union chapters are tracking every department that pledges fealty to a deity with decals featuring the national motto, sheriffs and city councils should keep in mind that they almost certainly will face legal threats.
They should be prepared.
That means making decisions in consultation with municipal attorneys, and making sure taxpayers aren't left on the hook for the whim of a council member or sheriff who won't personally pay out of pocket if push comes to lawsuit.
Police aren't lawyers, and no matter how many sheriffs or police chiefs say their departments won't be the targets of lawsuits, they can't guarantee that to the communities they serve or the taxpayers who will foot the bill. The FFRF has been particularly active, and in November 2015 the organization posted a long list of police departments it had contacted about "In God We Trust" decals. It's naive to think a town or county will fly under the FFRF's radar, no matter how small or rural.
But if these sheriffs and council members get the OK from their town and city attorneys, there's no reason why they shouldn't be permitted to add the national motto to police vehicles.
Too often, litigious anti-religious groups play a cat-and-mouse game with the communities they threaten, and too often their lawsuits are based on the complaints of a handful of people. In places like the American Midwest and South, the national motto has cultural significance as well as religious meaning. Those communities shouldn't be made to bend to the will of far-off advocacy groups based on the complaint of one or two people.
At the same time, police need to tread carefully. This is a time fraught with tension between the police and the American public, and police should not give reason for citizens to mistrust them, or do things that will land them on the front page of YouTube. That means making sure "In God We Trust" decals are paired with clear instructions not to proselytize, and not to make judgments about people of different faiths.
This also means emphasizing good policing practices, and training officers to calm situations instead of escalating them. And that means understanding that while the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, it doesn't guarantee there won't be consequences.
If police officers use the national motto in good faith, refrain from proselytizing, and pair "In God We Trust" with respect for their communities, officers should be permitted to display the motto on their patrol cars. Just don't expect to get a pass from the many anti-religion groups itching for a lawsuit.