TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a movement that gained momentum with the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism, several states have passed or are considering legislation to post the motto "In God We Trust" in schools.
"With things that are facing us today, like terrorism, I think we need a pulling-together of this country," said Clay County School Supt. David Owens, who is already putting up the motto in schools near Jacksonville without waiting for Florida to pass a law. "If putting these mottoes in the schools can help build patriotism, it has served its purpose."
The motto was first placed on coins by the U.S. Treasury in 1864, during the Civil War. In 1955, Congress passed a bill to have the motto placed on paper currency, and it first appeared on bills two years later.
In 1956, Congress passed a resolution declaring "In God We Trust" the national motto.
The use of the phrase has since withstood at least three federal court challenges, including one that led to a 1996 ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
"It's been tested for its constitutionality in federal court," said Michigan state Rep. Stephen Ehardt, a Republican. "It is secular. It's not a religious statement and it's something we should be proud of--it's our national motto."
The movement began with a push in Mississippi by the American Family Assn., a fundamentalist Christian group in Tupelo. The state passed a law about a year ago, well before Sept. 11, requiring the motto to be placed in every classroom.
The organization has since asked its 200,000 members from all 50 states to contact lawmakers and push for similar laws.
Michigan passed a law in December that makes it clear that the motto can be hung in schools. Florida, Utah, Arizona, Virginia, Louisiana and New Jersey are considering similar legislation, while an "In God We Trust" bill in Indiana died in committee in February.
"America has a rich Christian, and really religious, heritage," said Tim Wildmon, the American Family Assn.'s vice president. "If the president of the United States can be sworn in by placing his hand on the Holy Bible, certainly kids can know what the national motto is."
Opponents complain that lawmakers are using patriotism in a veiled attempt to bring religion into schools.
"There are a lot of other things that are much less divisive that we suggest they could use," said Emily Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "George Bush said in our State of the Union address that our national motto should be 'Let's roll.' Maybe we should put that up there."
The ACLU has spoken against the measure in several states, though it has admitted that it probably would not win a court challenge.
Marc Stern, legal director for the Washington-based American Jewish Conference, said he is concerned that the classroom requirement "will serve as a launching pad for further intrusion."
"If people are taking advantage of Sept. 11 to begin to re-fight the battle over whether the schools ought to be an institution charged with religious instruction, then that's a most unfortunate exploitation of the tragedies," said Stern, whose organization is not fighting the bills.
Utah state Rep. Richard Siddoway, a Republican who wants to require every school to post "In God We Trust," said: "If you're going to have to get rid of any mention of God and religion, you're going to have to get rid of the Declaration of Independence and you're going to have to get rid of the national anthem and, of course, the Pledge of Allegiance."