Should Pacific Northwest local government agencies publicly acknowledge their dependence on God by displaying the national motto “In God We Trust”?
That question was hotly debated this past month in two counties — one in southern Oregon and the other southwest Washington.
As reported by The Oregonian, Clark County commissioners in Vancouver on Feb. 10 turned down a proposal to display the motto in the public hearing room. After hours of testimony in front of dozens of people, the proposal failed when Commissioner Jeanne Stewart declined to second a motion favoring the idea from Commissioner Tom Mielke.
Mielke introduced the proposal after receiving an e-mail from Jacquie Sullivan, a city councilwoman in Bakersfield, Calif., who has been promoting the motto since 2004. The founder of In God We Trust – America, Inc.,a nonprofit registered in California, Johnson also is behind a recent debate over “In God We Trust” in Klamath County.
Mielke said he didn’t believe that displaying “In God We Trust” in the hearing room would violate separations of church and state, nor establish or promote a specific religion. He said “God “ is a generic term and the motto can apply to anyone who believes in a higher power.
Furthermore, he said, a focus on God is part of the nation’s history and the motto is a reminder that the U.S. was formed on the principles of God.
The discussion in Klamath County began in December, when Commissioner Tom Mallams mentioned his interest in displaying the motto inside the county’s public hearing room. The idea also was promoted by David and Carol Warren, a local couple who moved to Klamath Falls from Portland in 2007.
The Warrrens are leading an effort to raise money for a plaque to hang in the county building. Those who donate toward the project will receive an “In God We Trust” bumper sticker. So far about $650 has been raised from more than 50 donors.
Like Mielke, Mallams said he doesn’t consider display of the motto to be a separation of church and state issue, but simply an acknowledgement of a higher power. Those who don’t believe in God at all could simply choose not to look at the display, he said.
A Klamath Falls city councilwoman, Trish Seilers, was one of several Klamath County residents to speak out against the proposed plaque at a county commission meeting last month. She said commissioners represent everyone in the county and they should seek to unify county residents in addressing pressing issues and not divide people over questions of faith.
Jann Carson, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, agreed. She said she wasn’t sure whether display of the plaque would cross any specific legal line, however.
Mallams said county attorneys were looking into the legal issues, but that he hoped to make a formal motion soon to hang a plaque.