As 'In God We Trust,' Religious Freedom Laws Advance in Several States, Some Christians Worry

(Photo: Flickr / Shardayyy)Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would install "In God We Trust" signs in every public school.

With more than 200 religious freedom and Christian heritage bills proposed in over 32 states and Congress in 2018 alone, and some 24 of them signed into law in 13 states, including bills to display the national motto "In God We Trust" in public places, advocates are now celebrating.

Not all Christians, however, are happy with the agenda.

"Sometimes it's good to just stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and celebrate the wins ... wins for freedom ... wins for our heritage ... wins for people of faith!" the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation noted in a blog post Monday.

The organization, which started in 2005, says it has been able to successfully advance legislation to protect religious freedom, preserve America's Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer through Project Blitz. A 116-page guide posted to the organization's website lays out a guide for legislators to advance religious freedom interests nationwide and the last two years have been a blast.

"For the second straight year, hundreds of state legislators from all over the country participated in Project Blitz," the organization noted.

"Legislative wins include displaying 'In God We Trust' as our National motto in the public square, teaching about the Bible in public schools, protecting the rights of clergy members, protecting faith-based adoption agencies and much more. Of the 200+ bills, 74 could directly be traced to the 'best practice' Report and Analysis of Religious Freedom Measures provided by our own legal team," the group said.

The group has a congressional advisory board chaired by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., is also listed as a member.  

In the last two years, six states have passed laws mandating that every public school display the U.S. motto, "In God We Trust" prominently. Five of them — Alabama, Florida, Arizona, Louisiana and Tennessee — passed laws this year, while Arkansas passed such a law to prominently display "In God We Trust" in 2017.

In Louisiana, where the law mandating the display of the national motto in schools was passed in May with overwhelming support from legislators, local officials are also celebrating.

"It's already on the wall in our board room," Superintendent Philip Martin told Daily Comet. "It's on our national currency. I think it reinforces American values. It's now the law in Louisiana that you have to, and we plan to comply with the law."

He added: "Obviously I think we're ahead of this curve because it's already displayed prominently in our board meeting room. I don't think we'll have any negative results from this."

In addition to prominently displaying the national motto, all public schools in Louisiana are also now required by law to offer programs of instruction on the motto and this instruction must occur before the fifth grade.

State Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who authored the bill, doesn't want anyone to see the law as pushing God on anyone but sees the teaching of the national motto as an important part of U.S. history.

Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst with Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank based in Somerville, Massachusetts, argues, however, that the way Project Blitz defines religious freedom is misleading.

"Religious freedom in the sense that Project Blitz means it is not what the rest of us understand as the revolutionary aspiration of religious equality for all," Clarkson told RNS. "It's more of a cover for some conservative Christians to promote their religious and political views via public policy and public institutions, and as a justification for broad exemptions from the law."

Last month, the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches went on record opposing an "In God We Trust" bill that passed in the state House but stalled in the state Senate.

"For those who have no religious tradition, whose beliefs also are protected by the First Amendment, the motto is an affront," wrote Jennifer Copeland, an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church, in a blog post. "For those who DO believe the tenets of Trinitarian Christianity, we don't need a sign at school telling us who we trust."

Rollin Russell, a retired United Church of Christ minister active with the Orange-Durham chapter of Americans United in North Carolina told RNS that conservative Christian efforts like Project Blitz are "destroying the integrity of religion in America."

"It makes me crazy that people with that understanding of Christianity are enforcing their theological perspective on everybody else," Russell said.

Project Blitz however has no plans to stop pushing its religious freedom agenda and is encouraging its partners to keep pushing to win more legislative victories.

"While tremendous progress has been made, it's absolutely critical that we do not let up, hold up or give up. The key for continued success is having committed people remain resolute in their determination and stay engaged in the process ... our collective voices are being heard and it's making a difference!" the organization said.