I grew up in Altoona, Pa., a small city nestled in the Appalachian region of central Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Railroad and light industry formed the basis of the economy when I was a kid. We had a vibrant downtown and a sense of optimism about the future.
It didn’t last. Railroads collapsed as an economic powerhouse, and one by one the factories began closing. Stores downtown shuttered, and the city’s population, which was about 68,000 when I was a kid, plummeted to 45,000. These days, many young people get educated and move away. The opioid crisis has ravaged the area.
It’s a typical tale of Rust Belt woe, and in light of it, you’d think Altoona’s leaders would have a lot on their plate. So what’s the city council up to? Well, they recently spent time debating a proposal to plaster “In God We Trust” stickers on Altoona’s police cars and other city vehicles. The local newspaper, the Altoona Mirror (I interned there as a general assignment reporter way back in the summer of 1983) reports that the council thinks it’s a great idea.
The proposal was brought to the council by Matt Stachmus, a local veterinarian. Stachmus told the council he was inspired by an incident in 2015 when he, his wife and their 5-year-old daughter were out walking the family dog. Their dog, a terrier, was attacked by a neighbor’s Rottweiler. Stachmus and his neighbor were both armed – yeah, it’s that kind of a town – so Stachmus shot the Rottweiler. (The terrier later died of its injuries.)
Now, if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with “In God We Trust” stickers on municipal vehicles, you’re not alone. Perhaps Stachmus or Altoona council members were inspired by news coverage of states around the country considering legislation that would require public schools and other public buildings to display “In God We Trust.” These bills are part of the Religious Right’s Project Blitz agenda to promote “Christian nation” views and misuse religious freedom as a sword to harm others instead of as a shield to protect.
In any case, the council found Stachmus’ story inspiring and asked the city solicitor to look into the matter.
I was alternately amused and disgusted by the reaction of Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, who said, “Some liberal wacko may sue us, but it’s the right thing to do.”
I doubt anyone will sue – cases like this are tough to win because “In God We Trust” was named the national motto by Congress in 1956 – but if someone in Altoona did speak out against the proposal, that person might not be a "wacko." He or she could just be an advocate of separation of church and state who’s concerned that the rights of everyone in town be respected, religious believers as well as non-theists.
I’d also point out to Butterbaugh that if an Altoonan did object, that person would be a constituent. The job of a city councilmember is to respectfully listen to constituents even if you don’t agree with them, not call them names.
Altoona’s officials and its police department have a duty to represent and respect everyone in town, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and, yes, ardent atheists. They can best do that by focusing on policies that help the entire community. Symbolic mergers of religion and government, even when found on the back of police cars, run counter to that goal.