JEFFERSON CITY — Can Missouri public schools display the phrase “In God We Trust” without promoting a particular religion?
That was the central question driving the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education’s Tuesday hearing of House Bill 577, which would require all school buildings to prominently exhibit the U.S. national motto, “In God We Trust.”
“I believe the flag, the pledge of allegiance, the national motto and other items and symbols placed in public buildings remind us that freedom is not free,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dean Dohrman, R-La Monte, told the committee. “I think this is extremely important during this time of national stress.”
Congress adopted the national motto in 1956, at the height of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, where atheism was the official doctrine. The phrase had made earlier appearances in Francis Scott Key’s 1814 patriotic poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” and on currency since the 1860s.
Dohrman argued that because the phrase “In God We Trust” does not overtly reference a particular god or religion, it is secular and therefore does not violate the constitutional mandate of the separation of church and state.
But Brian Kaylor, a minister and associate director of the statewide Baptist network Churchnet, disagreed and said he takes offense with the motto’s branding as an all-encompassing patriotic statement.
“It will send a message to some of our children that unless they believe in a monotheistic deity, they are not fully American, or perhaps even welcome at their school,” Kaylor told the committee.
“This bill is not about some unifying patriotic notion,” he added, asking, “Why not mandate a posting of a picture of the national mammal — the bison?
“I cherish the strong Baptist heritage of standing for religious liberty for all,” Kaylor said. “That includes a healthy understanding of the separation of church and state.”
The bill is similar to several that have passed through other state legislatures, including in Florida and Kentucky. The language mirrors model legislation circulated by Project Blitz, a Christian legislative organization, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Concerns over the bill’s infringement on the freedom of religious worship has stirred public emotions.
Both Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, and Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said they have received strongly worded emails in opposition to the HB 577.
“I was called a terrorist,” Bailey told the other committee members.
But that didn’t deter Bailey from supporting the intent of Dohrman’s bill.
“We’re quite lost in the culture today,” Bailey said. “If these four words are going to raise an outrage, then maybe we need it.”
The sole piece of supportive testimony was given by Don Hinkle, public policy adviser for the Missouri Baptist Convention. Hinkle said that although the bill requires the display of the national motto, “no one is being coerced to believe” a particular religion.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, had a few questions about the reality of that assertion.
“Do you believe that phrase is a religiously neutral phrase?” Dogan asked.
“I would say it could be interpreted by people who are not Christians as being a deity of their particular belief,” Hinkle said. “I take you back to the historical argument about what this particular phrase has meant to the history of our nation. ... If you go back to the founders, they clearly were talking about a Christian god.”
“So you would want it to say, ‘In the Christian God We Trust?’” Dogan asked.
“I think the founders would say that,” Hinkle responded.
But Dogan said that interpretation is the most problematic aspect of the bill.
“That’s not what this actually says, which is broad and has been interpreted to be a secular phrase,” he said. “If it becomes sectarian, then we have a First Amendment problem, because people who aren’t Christian will ask, ‘What about my god?’”
With only three weeks left in the lawmaking session, Dohrman said he’s not overly optimistic about his bill passing into law this year and that he fully intends on filing it again next year.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, firstname.lastname@example.org.