"IN GOD WE TRUST" IN THE CLASSROOM
National Motto or Violation of the First Amendment?
By Stan Morris, Esq.
Mississippi has passed a law mandating that the phrase "In God We Trust" be displayed in every classroom in the state. As a national motto, we find this phrase on our money and other places throughout the nation. This slogan has been recognized as constitutional when used by the federal government. The latest rendition of that opinion by the United States Supreme Court was in 1989 in the case of Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, in which Justice Blackmun recognized the motto as being part of our national psyche. There is even some thought that the motto has lost religious meaning. Certainly Justice Blackmun, writing in Engle v. Vitale, a U.S. Supreme Court case which proscribed state endorsed prayer in public schools, believed that the motto was not an advancement of religion. The test has become whether or not the questioned activity is demonstrating a neutral attitude.
The case that set the parameters for analyzing whether a statute is constitutional is Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that case the Supreme Court set out what has become known as the Lemon test, which asked whether a statute (1) has a secular purpose, (2) has a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or (3) creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion. Statutes and policies not meeting this test will be struck down.
In spite of these rulings, there is constant pressure across the country to impart religious materials to public school students. In 2000, the Colorado State Board of Education tried, by a non-binding vote of 5-1, to have "In God We Trust" signs placed in all classrooms across the state. An election, which changed the composition of the board, quashed that effort. Other states besides Colorado and Mississippi have proposed such bills at various times.
In July of 2000, a few congressmen tried to require that the motto be displayed in all public buildings throughout the country. Public buildings would presumably include public schools.
The motto originated during the Civil War when the United States Treasury had it placed on U.S. coinage. It was not mandatory on U. S. currency until 1908 when it was applied to all U.S. coins. In 1955, the Congress made the phrase mandatory on all coins and paper currency. It was finally made the national motto in 1956. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on its constitutionality although it had the opportunity to do so several years ago.
Why then should there be uproar when the Mississippi legislature adopts the motto and directs that it hang in school classrooms across the state? An analysis of the state statute will help as well as some history. As introduced in the 2001 regular session of the Mississippi State Senate, Senate Bill 2576 provides that administrators, teachers or boards of education may post historical or cultural material regardless of whether or not such material contained religious information.
The other section of the statute requires a plaque, containing the words "In God We Trust." This plaque shall be at least eleven inches by fourteen inches and be placed in every public classroom, school cafeteria and auditorium in the state. A classroom is defined as any room where instruction takes place.
The provision mandates the plaque without regard to context. Many places are amenable to the national motto. A coin going into the slot machine at a casino spreads its message as much as if it buys a school lunch or is placed in a collection plate. In that respect, the motto has become meaningless. However, contrary to holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court, reference to religion can be made in the public schools only as long as there is some secular purpose advanced as opposed to a purely religious one.
The Mississippi statute more closely resembles the "one minute of silent reflection" statute that was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1985 when it decided the case of Wallace v. Jaffee. There the students were called upon to participate in a minute of "meditation and silent prayer." The Supreme Court put that statute in the same category as "a state religion." The opinion asks that someone looking at a statute attempt to determine "whether government's actual purpose is to endorse or disapprove of religion."
In similar circumstances, the recent case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe announced that the Establishment Clause prohibited the prayers of students before football games in this small Texas school district. In that case, the school official claimed that the microphone was available to students who were chosen by other students to speak on matters of concern such as an invocation. The school policy made it clear that the official sanction of the school district was part and parcel of the selection of student speakers who could be relied upon to deliver an "appropriate" message. The U.S. Supreme Court held this to be government sponsored prayer.
Mississippis challenge to the history of the Supreme Courts decisions is in section 1 of the statute, specifically: "There shall be no content-based censorship of American or Mississippi History, heritage or culture based on any religious references contained in such documents, writings or records." The Legislature is in effect saying that this bill is a religious mandate and the courts should not restrain the citizenry.
As reported by the Associated Press, on March 23, 2001, the Governor of the state, Ronnie Musgrove, said at a press conference: "Our nation was founded as a godly nation and we put it on our money, 'In God We Trust." Musgrove signed the bill despite the threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a similar vein, an editorial in support of the Mississippi statute was posted on the Internet from an attorney, Kelly Coghlan, in Houston. Mr. Coghlan claims that the U.S. Supreme Court has not barred any
prayer in schools. That thought is true enough as long as one thinks
of the old cliché that "there will be prayer in schools
as long as there are math tests."
there has been some rethinking of what is and what is not an establishment
of religion, notably in the area of state assistance for special
education and for disabled students attending parochial schools.
This trend has been noted in Agostini v. Felton in 1997 and
earlier in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District
in 1993. This direction is a clear reversal of the Supreme Court
ruling in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing
Twp. A local school district had provided transportation by
school bus to local Roman Catholic parochial school students. The
Court decided that no state funds could be used to aid parochial
education. It was one of the first cases to use the phrase "wall
of separation between church and state," and it started a long
trend to remove any support for religious practices and ideas from
the public schools.
these cases it can be seen that aid to religious organizations and
state prescribed prayer can be distinguished. Indeed the Supreme
Court may be counted on to continue the differentiation. The president
in his acceptance speech at the Republican Party convention makes
the point, "Yet government can take the side of these [faith-based]
groups, helping the helper, encouraging the inspired." This
expression is not a call for prayer in schools but aid to religious
organizations in their secular concerns.
distinction between this call and Mississippis call to confront
the idea of religion in the schools and impose that idea
on all who are there is a much different proposal. Mississippis
challenge is, in all likelihood, going to be struck down.
Morris is a trial and appellate attorney with significant experience
arguing, researching and writing on a wide range of constitutional
and other legal issues. Based in Cortez, Colorado, Mr. Morris also
is a skilled presenter on free speech and communication media. For
more information, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
ALLEGHENY COUNTY v. GREATER PITTSBURGH ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)
Engle v. Vitale
Lemon v. Kurtzman
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
Lee v. Weisman
Wallace v. Jaffree
Agostini v. Felton
Zobrest v. Catalina Hills School District.
Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Twp.
Geo.W. Bush 3 Aug 2000
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