Motto Operandi

The raging issue of shootings of and by police officers has taken an unexpected turn.

Dozens of police departments in the country have been putting “In G-d We Trust” decals on their patrol cars, a trend that has been objected to as an alleged violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Police Chief Adrian Garcia of Childress, Texas, explained that his force’s decision to emblazon its vehicles with the motto was directly linked to the wave of shootings. “I think with all the assaults happening on officers across the country and the two that happened in the past few days in Harris County and Abilene, it’s time we get back to where we once were,” Garcia told the Red River Sun, a local newspaper.

Not surprisingly, there are those who are offended. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has spearheaded a campaign to get the decals removed, sending complaints to law enforcement agencies in Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Virginia and other states.

So far it’s a standoff. None of the police agencies have said they would scrape the decals off, and no lawsuits have yet been filed to compel them to do so. Given the litigious history of the church-state issue, it may not be long before the Supreme Court will have to rule on whether such pieties can be affixed to a state-owned vehicle.

On the other hand, it is hard to see why the courts should even take up the issue.

As Chief Garcia correctly pointed out, “This is our nation’s motto … it’s even on our currency. It’s nothing new.”

“In G-d We Trust” was first put on federal coins during the Civil War, a time when religious feelings were running particularly high. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase gave the reason for it in a letter to the Mint on November 20, 1861: “No nation can be strong except in the strength of G-d, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in G-d should be declared on our national coins.”

Then, in 1956, when Americans saw themselves engaged in a life-or-death struggle with G-dless communism, Congress passed a resolution declaring “In G-d We Trust” to be the national motto, replacing E pluribus unum, which had been the unofficial motto until that time.

To be sure, there has long been opposition to it from those who view any governmental use of religious scripture or symbolism as an infringement of their right to be free from faith.

But while they have won on various other religion-state issues, such as outlawing the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, their petition to expunge “In G-d We Trust” from federal coin and currency has been denied repeatedly by the courts.

Just last year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld the motto, saying that the courts have long looked upon it as a broadly accepted “reference to the country’s religious heritage.”

“Americans need not be forced to abandon their religious heritage simply to appease someone’s animosity toward anything that references G-d,” said Rory Gray of the Alliance Defending Freedom, in welcoming the Circuit Court decision.

Despite complaints from atheists and agnostics that the motto violates their rights and “discriminates” against them, the courts have allowed it on the grounds that it is not coercive, and does not prefer one religion over another.

In an attempt to show that they are not a tiny fringe group but a significant minority that must be respected, the Freedom From Religion Foundation cites the Pew Research Center finding that 23 percent of Americans describe themselves as “nonreligious.” That number represented an increase of 8 percentage points from 2007.

Be that as it may, it does not mean that those 23 percent would necessarily object to “In G-d We Trust.” Furthermore, it is a puny datum next to the resounding re-affirmation of the motto in recent years.

In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of its adoption, the Senate reaffirmed it as the national motto. In 2011, the House did the same. Previously, a joint poll by USAToday, CNN and Gallup in 2003 said that 90 percent of Americans support the inscription on U.S. coins.

It is, after all, the official national motto, and its display need not offend or intimidate anyone. Those few who object have no constitutional right to impose their atheism on the vast majority.

And as mottos go, we think “In G-d We Trust” is a pretty good one. Better than “In Guns We Trust,” or “In Us We Trust.”

Besides, while Salmon P. Chase coined the phrase (literally!), as a religious man himself he knew very well its origin, in Tehillim (118:8, 40:4) and Mishlei 29:25. A wise choice.