A Question of Trust
By Diego DuBois
“The whole purpose is to promote patriotism,” Jacquie Sullivan told the Redlands Daily Facts when Yucaipa opted to display the words “In God We Trust” in the City Council chambers. Sullivan is the founder of the Bakersfield-based In God We Trust-America which, according to the organization’s website, is fighting to redecorate “[e]very city, county and state chamber in America” with the McCarthy-era national slogan.
Yucaipa is just the latest in a series of city and county governments that have embraced the motto, passed resolutions or displayed the phrase in their place of business. It joins Norco, Ontario and nine other cities in San Bernardino County. Riverside County’s newly-incorporated city of Eastvale narrowly avoided joining the bunch last week by deferring passage of a motto-displaying ordinance until the Jurupa school district’s board (Eastvale uses district facilities for its meetings) could be consulted.
But in the provincial mindset of the IE’s political players, it won’t take long. “What they display at their meetings is their responsibility,” the district’s assistant superintendent told The Press-Enterprise.
Rather than injecting the public with “love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it,”—the dictionary’s definition of patriotism—the proponents of these resolutions are instead inserting God into the halls of government.
At least that’s how the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has been fighting for the separation of church and state since 1978, sees the situation.
The Foundation has a history of involvement in the area, having filed suit over the removal of an atheism-promoting billboard in Rancho Cucamonga in November of 2008. When it became difficult to establish who censored the sign, they elected to focus legal efforts elsewhere.
As of yet, no legal challenge has been brought against a local government’s choice to emblazon city hall with the phrase. But that could change. The battle would doubtlessly be uphill: Congress officially designated the motto back in 1956, and according to a memo from the Pacific Justice Institute, a Christian legal team that offers pro-bono services to any city sued for posting the motto, case law concerning church-state separation has specifically exempted “In God We Trust” as serving “legitimate secular purposes.”
But courts have tended to be favorable to atheist, agnostic and non-Judeo-Christian Americans who have been marginalized by theism (albeit non-sectarian) in government.
“Courts look more negatively on religion that you can’t get away from,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s founding co-president, tells the Weekly. “It’s one thing to have it on the money or currency, but you don’t have to have the government telling you to believe in a God. But when you’re going to your city hall and you’re getting God thrust on you, it’s much more of an affront. It makes you feel like a political outsider.”
Which is why statements such as Colton City Councilman David Toro’s about his city’s legislative action—“[W]e’re going to show that we’re a God-fearing city and a God-fearing nation”—may be able to show the phrase was illegally posted for religious, rather than “legitimate secular” purposes.
And while some of the motto postings have been paid for with non-public monies, taxpayers may be on the hook for some of them: Mayor Dennis Yates of Chino was quoted last year as saying, “The city manager can sign contracts up to $25,000, and this thing didn’t cost much, so I said, ‘Put it up.’” It is unclear how much Chino’s display cost, but in neighboring Chino Hills, that city’s motto, done in aluminum lettering, cost $900.
Politicians have shown themselves thoroughly capable of capitalizing on popular sentiment to build a track record of easy political successes to advance their careers (as Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner put it, “I knew [the city council members] support God”). The sheer number of local governments taking such action demonstrates that using majority rule to exclude and repress minorities is a safe political bet. What remains to be seen is when their constituents will see through the sanctimonious ploys.
On the other hand, adopting the motto “In God we Trust” may be just the reminder we need to withhold our confidence from those who may not deserve it—our public officials.