Meadville Tribune

Opinion

May 11, 2014

Pennsylvanians may trust in God, but should we advertise it?

The nation’s motto, “In God We Trust,” has strong connections to a native Pennsylvanian, but should the phrase become a mandatory fixture in commonwealth classrooms?

Lawmakers returning to work in early June “shall” — make that “may” — take up the question of whether to encourage school districts to post the motto.

A bill authored by Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny County, proposes a celebration of the phrase. Saccone is the same lawmaker behind a resolution designating 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania.

Saccone initially intended to require schools to post the motto. Facing specter of a dust-up by civil libertarians, the House voted unanimously Wednesday to replace all the “shalls” and “wills” with “mays.”

Then, for good measure, it tacked on a suggestion that schools post the Bill of Rights, as well.

Overlooked, perhaps, was our state motto: “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.” It’s less of a motto than a set of laudable abstracts, but still it sounds like the kind of thing that would work in a school.

Regardless of whether posting “In God We Trust” is optional, those who think the national motto should get more attention are happy. So says George Venios, who is working to establish an “In God We Trust” museum in Milton. After all, this is the 150th anniversary of the phrase’s addition to our currency.

As Venios tells it, a minister wrote to U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase suggesting that God ought to be mentioned on U.S. money. A history compiled by the Treasury Department attributes the request to increased religious fervor prompted by the Civil War.

Chase contacted former Pennsylvania Gov. James Pollock — a Milton native — who was running the U.S. Mint. Pollock noted the closing line of the fourth-stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner”: “And this be our motto: In God is our trust.”

The phrase, slightly modified, was added to two-cent pieces, then to the rest of U.S. currency.

It wasn’t until the height of the Cold War, in 1956, that the phrase was designated as our national motto, Venios noted. At the time the federal government was doing everything it could to remind Americans, and the world, why the United States was different from the godless U.S.S.R.

It was around the same time, said Venios, that “Under God” was neatly amended into the “Pledge of Allegiance.”

Milton Borough has received a sign with “In God We Trust” on it. Venios said he’s made no effort to get the local school district to post a similar sign.

“It’s our national motto,” he said, adding that educators and students ought to be able to talk about its origins “without pushing religion or a political agenda.”

Saccone’s legislation notes numerous appeals courts have held that posting the motto is appropriate “so long as the purpose of the display is to advance or endorse the national motto, rather than a particular religious belief or practice.”

“I know it is, but I’m having a hard time understanding why it’s controversial,” Venios said.

Any controversy went out the window when lawmakers changed the bill this week to make posting the sign optional for schools, said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County. He was one of nine members of the Education Committee who voted against the bill in committee.

“As a practicing Christian, I think it’s the wrong approach” to force schools to post the motto, he said. “I don’t think it’s the government’s role.”

Longietti had also objected to the potential risk of litigation against schools. But as long as posting the motto is optional, he reasoned, schools also have the choice to defend any lawsuits that might result.

“They can make that decision whether we pass this law or not,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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