Students across the nation are heading back to school and for public school students in South Dakota, they will be greeted with prominent displays of “In God We Trust” inscribed on walls in stencil or paint.
The inscriptions are mandated by a new state law that requires schools to display the quote — which is also the national motto — in an area where students can’t miss it, such as entryways to schools or cafeterias. Lawmakers insist the measure is aimed at fostering patriotism and giving solace to students facing hardships, but critics are wary of the law’s intentions.
South Dakota’s law follows in the footsteps half a dozen other states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Arizona — that have approved similar legislation. In some cases, like Louisiana, the law was passed some time ago but is only coming into effect now. The quote, “In God We Trust,” was first inscribed on U.S. coins during the Civil War and was declared the national motto in 1956.
According to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, the quote serves to remind students “of our country’s faith tradition.” In a July 25 tweet, she wrote: “We should never be afraid to proclaim that we are one nation under God.” Critics, however, were quick to question which “faith” tradition Noem had in mind. Even a group of students from a Rapid City high school, Stevens High, approached the school board with concerns that the quote excluded diverse religious students; they “suggested alternating God with Buddha, Yahweh and Allah on the signs — along with other terms such as ‘Science’ or simply, ‘Ourselves’ — in an effort to be more inclusive.”
Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation are questioning the legality of the new law, but state officials built in a contingency plan: the state will assume all financial responsibility for dealing with legal and other challenges. And the South Dakota attorney general will represent any school district employee or board member if he or she is sued for implementing the law.
More important than the possible legal challenges (which even the challengers acknowledge are unlikely to succeed) are the political challenges represented by the South Dakota law. Some church-state scholars caution that, while these types of measures will probably hold up in court, they may still be problematic because schools should be seen as welcoming students of all religions and none.
The group pushing laws like South Dakota’s anticipated these types of responses. The law is one of a series of measures proposed by Project Blitz, a project of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, National Legal Foundation and the WallBuilders Pro Family Legislative Network. In its 2017 strategy document, Project Blitz acknowledges that its first-levels efforts, such as proliferating “In God We Trust” laws, will likely withstand legal challenges but that critics will worry about its exclusionary effect.
The document also makes clear that these bills are first in a series of other measures that even Project Blitz organizers recognize as legally and politically contentious. Whereas “In God We Trust” and similar measures in “Category #1 … mainly recognize the place of Christian principles in our nation’s history and heritage” and “are likely to receive the least opposition,” Category 2 measures like having state legislators issue proclamations recognizing Christian heritage week, the importance of the Bible and the year of the Bible, will face the “charge that advocates are being divisive because they are favoring Christianity or Judaism over other religions.” Proponents need not worry, though; the document says, “these opposition arguments often do not play well among members of the general public and are not usually detrimental in elections.”
Category 3 measures go even further into disputed territory. The so-called “Religious Liberty Protection Legislation” includes measures like legislative resolutions “establishing public policy favoring … intimate sexual relations only between married, heterosexual couples; reliance on and maintenance of birth gender; adoption by intact heterosexual, marriage-based families.”
So, while South Dakota’s “In God We Trust” law may not on its face seem like a politicized measure, the Project Blitz strategy document clarifies the law’s political utility. Fox News commentators underscored it. Speaking in favor of the South Dakota law, Tammy Bruce opined, “We must push back on these leftists. We must show them that we will not be cowed into silence.” Fox News host Lou Dobbs agreed: “Very simply, God belongs in our public square. This idea that freedom to not believe in God means others don’t have the freedom to express their belief in God — it’s mindless and un-American.”
Asma T. Uddin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Her email address is: [email protected].