UPDATE, 3:35 p.m.: Supervisor Rex Bohn has decided to pull this item off Tuesday’s board agenda. See post here.
Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn wants the phrase “In God We Trust” to be displayed prominently inside board chambers, as the Mad River Union reported yesterday, and his proposed resolution to that effect has, predictably, drawn a lawsuit threat from local civil rights attorney Peter Martin and his client, Carole Beaton.
Martin and Beaton, you may recall, recently settled a lawsuit against the City of Eureka over mayor-sponsored prayer breakfasts, with the City agreeing to stop using its resources to promote such pious repasts — and to pay Beaton’s attorney fees, to the tune of $16,500.
In a letter sent to the board this morning, Martin suggested that Bohn is trying to “inject religion into county government” and thereby running “the risk of an expensive and divisive civil lawsuit against the County.” The board is scheduled to vote on the resolution at Tuesday’s meeting.
Will Martin and Beaton actually sue if this thing gets passed?
“I think we don’t have enough information yet to make that determination,” Martin said in a phone conversation this morning.
As Bohn’s resolution notes, “In God We Trust” is the national motto — has been since 1956, when it replaced “E Pluribus Unum.” But atheists and others have objected to government use of the phrase, arguing that it violates the separation of church and state principle laid out in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. There have been several unsuccessful legal challenges over the years to the phrase’s appearance on our money. Just last year a federal judge dismissed such a suit, writing in his decision that “the Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect” and that federal appeals courts “have found no constitutional violation in the motto’s inclusion on currency.”
But Martin is not deterred by such precedents. Previous legal challenges have mostly come at the federal level, and he believes state law could prove more favorable to his client’s position.
Bohn’s divine resolution was apparently suggested verbatim by a Bakersfield-based organization called In God We Trust — America Inc., whose stated mission is to get “In God We Trust” displayed “in every City, County Chamber and State Capitol in America.” Bohn recommends mailing a copy of the fully executed resolution to the In God We Trust — America Inc. headquarters.
Martin notes in his letter that the phrase was proclaimed the national motto “at the height of Cold War hysteria.” The year before signing this proclamation into law, President Dwight Eisenhower remarked, “Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life. … Thus the Founding Fathers saw it, and thus, with God’s help, it will continue to be.”
But not everyone agrees with Ike’s historical interpretation. Scholars bring up quotes from the likes of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson (who said, “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”) and John Adams (who said, “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history.”) as evidence against such a proposition.
But, again, federal courts have repeatedly ruled that “In God We Trust” doesn’t actually mean anything religious. An appeals court in 1970, for example, ruled, “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”
Bohn appears to be banking on such precedents as he brings forth this resolution.