Editor’s Note: This week, Americans United is marking the return of the school year with a special series of education-themed blog posts. Today’s looks at a growing problem: posting “In God We Trust” signs in public schools.
As you were getting ready to go back to your local public school this September – whether you’re still a kid or a parent dropping off your kids – you probably could have guessed what you’d see decorating the hallways and classrooms: science projects, student artwork, and periodic tables. But in six states around the country, you may have been surprised to see a new addition to those displays when you arrived. Legislators in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina have all recently voted to require or allow posters that say “In God We Trust” to hang in public schools, including elementary schools
With all of the other pressing issues that our public schools currently face, why is hanging “In God We Trust” posters on the walls at the top of legislators’ agendas for this schoolyear? Many legislators claim that they passed these bills to encourage students to remember that “In God We Trust” is the national motto. But their own words betray these claims and show their true goal: to encourage students to believe in God.
Take it from the Florida bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Daniels (D-Jacksonville). During floor debate, Daniels said, “God is positive,” and he “is the light. Our schools need light in them like never before.” Another Florida legislator, Larry Lee (D-Ft. Pierce), said that the bill “is a great idea when many young people aren’t going to church.”
And in Alabama, Blount County Superintendent Rodney Green said it plainly. Posting “In God We Trust” “supports a recognition of a higher authority and we can depend on that higher authority for protection.”
These officials need to remember that it’s not the role of public schools to encourage children to recognize a higher power. The U.S. Constitution gives parents the right to decide what their children learn about God, not public schools. Of course, American families and students practice a variety of religions and faiths – and nearly 23 percent identify as nonreligious. Our public schools are supposed to bring Americans together and make all kids feel welcome, but these bills make some kids feel like outcasts in their own communities simply because of their religion.
State legislators have not been coming up with the idea and strategy to pass these “In God We Trust” bills on their own. These bills are the first step of a nationwide strategy called Project Blitz — a playbook created by three Christian nationalist groups to pass state bills that undermine religious freedom and redefine the U.S. as a Christian nation. They hope to use bills like “In God We Trust” as a stepping stone to even more damaging bills that allow public schools to promote prayer, teach creationism, and eventually allow the government to use religion to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women, and religious minorities.
And Project Blitz’s Christian nationalists are not shy about taking credit for their efforts. Former U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, one of the Project Blitz’s architects, told reporters, “We’ve been spearheading the effort to get ‘In God We Trust’” back up in buildings across the country.” Forbes continued on to admit that “We worked with the state of Tennessee and many other states… We can kind of point out for them the landmines that are out there, telling them from best practices what other states have done that’s worked well.”
At Americans United, we’ve been monitoring Project Blitz’s efforts closely and have fought the state battles over “In God We Trust” that Forbes mentions. The six states that passed bills are only half of those that considered these bills in 2018. Six more states, shown in pink on the below map, considered “In God We Trust” bills during the 2018 legislative sessions. In total, there were twenty-six “In God We Trust” bills introduced in the states this year—up nearly 900% from last year, where there were only three bills introduced. It’s clear that Forbes and friends at Project Blitz have seen success this year.
Based on the success of “In God We Trust” bills had in 2018, it’s safe to assume they’ll be back in 2019. Indeed, in Kentucky, a state legislator has already introduced one such bill for next year, and he’s not hiding his intention to use his bill to promote God either: as he told reporters, “We need God in our schools more than ever.”
Fortunately, so many are already speaking out against these bills, from Tennessee parents who believe it excludes people who don’t believe in God, to Palm Beach County public school teachers who expressed discomfort with displaying the motto in their classrooms. Here’s just one great example. Brandon Gilvin, Christian minister in Chattanooga, said, “It becomes pretty exclusionary for a lot of people, particularly religious minorities when it becomes something posted in public schools."
We agree. We will be again monitoring these bills closely and we’ll be fighting back. Sign up for our emails to stay updated on our plans to protect religious freedom in public schools.