Pennsylvania lawmakers softened a proposal earlier this week about posting “In God We Trust” in school buildings to make it optional and to add the Bill of Rights to the measure.
The House also voted narrowly to reject a proposal to have the state cover legal costs if lawsuits result and, by a wider margin, defeated an amendment that would have put the question before local voters in a referendum.
The National Motto Display Act attributes the national motto to a 19th-century Pennsylvania governor, though it was not formally adopted until President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law nearly 60 years ago.
The House amendments — which also made it apply to cyber schools and directed the secretary of education to notify districts — cleared the way for a final chamber vote, perhaps as early as next month. If it passes it will then go to the state Senate.
“The change from a mandate to a suggestion is a good thing,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But schools post this phrase at their own risk. A blessing from the state House doesn’t make a display of the phrase constitutional. That’s for a court to decide.”
Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, said school districts needed protection against potential litigation.
“The reality is that this mandate will come with a price tag, and our districts will be on the hook,” Carroll argued.
But Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, said there are lawyers who would defend the law for free, and indemnifying districts would set a bad precedent.
“I would hope that the fact that we’re talking about our national motto, In God We Trust, that people should understand that this is something we should be proud of,” Clymer said.
Covering districts’ legal bills was voted down, 99-97, but adding the Bill of Rights passed unanimously.
“In the American experience, as we as a people moved from subjects of the crown to free men, there is no more sacred doctrine than that that establishes our rights as free men,” said the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Mike O’Brien, D-Philadelphia. “Simply put it should be prominently and proudly displayed alongside the national motto.”
Rep. Steve McCarter, D-Montgomery, said local residents should be able to decide if they want to display the motto and Bill of Rights.
“Our public schools should not be a place for motto branding of any sort, let alone motto branding that carries a religious message,” said McCarter, who formerly taught history in public schools.
Clymer said McCarter’s amendment wasn’t properly drafted because it would be a county referendum not a local referendum, and argued elected school boards would be able to make the decision. It was voted down, 135-61.