Greene County, Mo., police cars now read “In God We Trust,” and some residents aren’t pleased by the change.

In a letter to the Springfield News-Leader’s “Answer Man,” Laura Entwisle wrote, “I recently saw a Greene County sheriff's deputy's car with letters on the bumper that say, ‘In God We Trust.’ I called the sheriff's office and was told that Sheriff Jim Arnott decided to do this.”

“If taxpayer money was used, is it legal? I’m asking because I am not of a faith that identifies with the name ‘God’ and I don't think I'm the only one,” Entwisle concluded.

“Answer Man” Steve Pokin interviewed Arnott, who confirmed he added the phrase to police department vehicles about a year ago. “I made the decision. I had been meaning to do it since taking office in 2009 and I just got around to it,” he told Pokin. And he didn’t have much patience for Entwistle, or for other local residents who’ve complained about the change.

“I'm guessing she is offended by it. If that’s the case, I’m hoping that she does not use any of our currency either,” he said. “People ask me why I did it. The reason is because I like it.”

That explanation didn’t appease detractors. One, Thomas Essel, slammed Arnott’s statements as “conceited and downright pompous” in a letter to the editor.“To cut off any detractors or critics at the pass, let me also say that Sheriff Arnott’s reasoning is not that the offending phrase is the official motto of the United States – which I find to be equally repugnant – but only ‘because I like it.’ What else could this be other than the blatant use of taxpayer money to fund Arnott's own personal religious agenda?” Essel asserted.

I can hardly blame Essel and Entwisle for objecting to Arnott’s decision to add the phrase to police cars. Although the phrase doubles as the national motto, and is therefore likely a legal addition to the cars, there’s no question the sheriff’s move is motivated by sectarian bias. His statements reveal as much, and so does his public Facebook page, which displays a police badge that references Romans 13:4. 

In case you aren’t familiar with it, here’s what Romans 13:4 says: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Arnott, of course, is entitled to believe that he is God’s servant, and is also entitled to express that belief on his personal Facebook page. That belief, however, appears to confirm what Essel feared; the sheriff does indeed have a personal religious agenda, and pursued it even though it has clearly alienated the very Greene County residents he’s sworn to protect.

Unfortunately, those residents have little legal recourse available to them. The courts have ruled repeatedly that manifestations of “ceremonial deism,” like the national motto, don’t constitute a government endorsement of religion. It’s not a compelling argument, especially when you consider the sectarian origins of the national motto; it has been in use officially since 1956, thanks to a congressional resolution influenced by the Red Scare. It was adopted to establish the United States as a God-fearing country in ideological opposition to the officially atheistic Soviet Union.

Advocates for separation of church and state have long argued that it’s time to reconsider the national motto. Sheriff Arnott’s just provided them with more ammunition.