Some people in Fort Worth, Texas, seem to believe that respect for all religious and nonreligious traditions is optional. What they’re forgetting, though, is that separation of church and state is not optional.

This past week, several bright yellow banners flying the atheist slogan “In No God We Trust” were vandalized (nearly destroyed, in fact) across the city. Why are the banners there to begin with? Under a city policy, non-profit groups may provide banners and display them on public property to promote events that are open to the public. The city may prohibit the display of certain banners, but only if the message is profane, threatening or otherwise inappropriate, local media outlets reported.  

Of course, these banners, displayed by Metroplex Atheists as advertising for an upcoming event, expressed none of those qualities. Furthermore, as is required by the city, the group filed the obligatory paperwork and paid a fee to hoist up each banner. Yes, it is a theological, and perhaps touchy, message, but a constitutionally protected one designed – just like any other banner – to raise awareness of the atheist group’s activities, in particular, an education seminar on July 14.

Having created this forum, the city may not discriminate or deny the opportunity to put up the banners based on the organization or its religious status. Fort Worth let its atheists fly their flag high – and it’s good that they did. The government in this case treated a non-religious viewpoint the same as a religious one. It was the right thing to do. It’s too bad the vandals don’t agree. (One man even posted a photo on Facebook, that has since been deleted, bragging about cutting the banners with a knife.)

Metroplex Atheists released a statement in response to the vandalism. Of the phrase “In God We Trust,” officially declared the U.S. national motto in 1956 when signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, they wrote: “Our purpose is to convince both nonbelievers and believers that the motto is exclusionary and divisive.”

Betsy Price, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, took to Twitter to express her dismay at the vandalism. Price made it clear that she doesn’t care for the banners’ message, saying she was “appalled” when she saw them. But, citing city policy, she said the community must “respect freedom of speech,” including the atheist message on these particular banners.

The group favors the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” – Out of Many, One – as a “more appropriate and unifying” national motto. Suggesting that we return to an unofficial motto that served our nation well for nearly 200 years is hardly a radical position. And it's true that government's embrace of a religiously-rooted motto is exclusionary to people who either do not subscribe to a particular faith or, as in this instance, are nonreligious.

There is a long history of the targeting of atheists in Texas. In fact, a ban on atheists from serving in public office is still codified in the state’s constitution. The ban can’t be enforced – provisions like it were invalidated in several states by the U.S. Supreme Court 1961’s Torcaso v. Watkins – but it remains on paper, a reminder of past bigotry.

At Americans United, we are proud to fight against any efforts to discriminate on the basis of religion and exclude people from full participation in society. That very much includes the failure of governments to adequately protect religious minorities, skeptics and non-believers.

(Photo: Screenshot from KDFW-TV, Dallas)