The words appear on every dollar bill and US coin. They are
displayed at the entrance to the US Senate and above the Speaker's
chair in the House.
But when local officials in North Carolina placed "In God We
Trust" on the front of the Davidson County Government Center, they
soon found themselves in federal court facing a complaint that they
were violating the separation of church and state.
The display was mounted in 18-inch letters that passing motorists
could see on nearby Interstate 85. "If you are going to get sued,
you may as well get sued for big letters," says Larry Potts, vice
chairman of the Davidson County Commission.
The case is one of an array of church-state battles across the
country seeking to establish a bedrock answer to a difficult
constitutional question: To what extent may the government bring God
into the public square?
It is more than crosses, creches, and menorahs. Last year the US
Supreme Court considered whether repeating the words "under God" in
the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment's prohibition
of government establishment of religion. And the justices are
currently weighing the constitutionality of displaying the Ten
Commandments on public property in Texas and Kentucky. Decisions in
the Ten Commandments cases could come as early as Monday, or, at the
latest, by the end of next month.
Legal scholars are hopeful the Ten Commandments opinions will
provide a legal landmark, offering lower courts more precise
guidelines to help judges resolve the growing number of church-
At the center of the debate is whether the Constitution demands
strict separation between church and state or whether it provides
leeway to permit government acknowledgment of America's religious
heritage. Others go further, saying the First Amendment bars
establishment of a government-backed church but says nothing about
government efforts to promote religiosity and faith-based morality.
The Davidson County debate over "In God We Trust" started in
2002. That's when Rick Lanier suggested posting the phrase on the
side of the government center. At the time, Mr. Lanier was a county
commissioner and a member of a local ad hoc group called the US
Motto Action Committee, which was offering to pay for the display.
Not everyone on the county commission thought it was a good idea.
Critics said it would be viewed as an endorsement of religion. Some
said the commission might get sued.
Lanier noted that in 1956 Congress designated "In God We Trust"
as the national motto. After nearly 50 years, he said, what judge
would dare declare a local display of the national motto
unconstitutional? The measure passed 4 to 2.
To Lanier and other supporters, the display was seen as a local
response to the 9/11 terror attacks and an answer to a growing
number of lawsuits seeking to remove any mention of God and religion
from public life. "For the past three to four years we went from a
gradual process with legal challenges from groups like the American
Civil Liberties Union and American Atheists to a fast-track effort
to try to completely secularize our society," Lanier says.
He adds, "If you secularize and take God and our religious
heritage out of [our society], then we open the door even wider to
moral corruption and tearing down the very fiber that built this
Two local lawyers who conduct business in the county building
objected to what they saw as the use of public property to present a
religious message. "It is the semantic equivalent of putting up a
sign that says Davidson County believes in the Christian God," says
Michael Lea, a Thomasville, N. …