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Butler County Commissioners OK display of 'In God We Trust' in meeting room

Thursday, April 17, 2014, 1:26 a.m.
 

The writing will be on the wall in the Butler County Commissioners' meeting room.

By virtue of a 2-1 vote, the county commissioners Wednesday approved displaying the words “In God We Trust” in their meeting room at the courthouse annex.

Nobody from the public spoke in favor of it nor did anyone object to displaying the phrase, which was adopted officially as the national motto in 1956.

Despite the possibility that it could invite a court challenge regarding the separation of church and state, Republican Commissioners William McCarrier and Dale Pinkerton voted to approve the display. Democratic Commissioner Jim Eckstein opposed it.

Pinkerton raised the issue after receiving a letter from a group known as In God We Trust — America Inc. which is pushing city and county governments nationwide to display the motto.

“The mission is to promote patriotism by encouraging elected officials to vote ‘yes' on displaying our national motto,” Pinkerton said.

He also said it is a matter of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

But Eckstein disagreed, saying it is bringing religious beliefs into a government forum.

He said of the list of cities and counties that have enacted it, according to information provided by In God We Trust - America Inc., only 53 counties — 1.6 percent of counties nationwide — have done it, and 26 of those counties are in one state, Missouri.

Only one other Pennsylvania county, Cameron, has adopted the motto for display.

“I believe strongly in the separation of church and state,” Eckstein said. “That's one of the things that we (America) do well.”

McCarrier, the commissioners' chairman, said both of his colleagues touched on valid points, which make it a difficult issue.

But, he added, “Putting a sign up is not establishing a national religion, I believe.”

He said the country was founded by “Godly men” and all U.S. currency bears the phrase.

“I don't see anything wrong with putting it on the wall because it is our national motto,” McCarrier said.

When asked why they would risk attracting legal action on the matter, from an organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Pinkerton said, “I think it is the right thing to do.”

McCarrier said they had about 20 calls and emails from county residents supporting the idea and only one who was opposed. Pinkerton said he also received messages of support and a sign company even contacted him, offering to create a sign for free.

“If the ACLU challenges it and the court rules against it, we'll take it down,” McCarrier said.

McCarrier said should that happen, he would not support the county appealing it. Pinkerton, however, said he would favor appealing such a ruling.

“I'm the type of person who believes we should be supporting things like that,” Pinkerton said. “I think we've taken God out of too many things.”

Conversely, Eckstein said he wouldn't challenge the decision by his colleagues.

“Hell no,” he said. “I hope it disappears. I am absolutely not going to do a thing to cost the county money.”

The ACLU's view

The chances of a court challenge being filed, at least by the ACLU, appear slim, based on a spokeswoman's comments.

“Our position is that this kind of display is inappropriate in a governmental body's meeting room,” said Sara Rose, an attorney with the ACLU's Pittsburgh office. “People go to these meetings often seeking assistance from their elected officials for everything from variances to garbage collection.

“It gives the appearance that the majority of the people in the community who believe in God are favored over those who may not believe in God,” she said.

“We think that having any kind of governmental display of religious beliefs is divisive,” Rose said.

However, she said the courts have ruled that displaying “In God We Trust” is ceremonial rather than religious. She said that's because the phrase does not promote one religious sect over another.

For that reason, she said, the ACLU probably would not file a suit against Butler County.

“They usually require it to be a little more sectarian when they rule that it is unconstitutional,” Rose said. “Basically, the test that the court applies is: Is the government endorsing a particular religion by a display of this sort?'

“I think the basic understanding is that it is such an innocuous phrase that it is meaningless,” she said.

A second constitutional test could be applied, she said. That is: Did the government officials displaying it do it with the purpose of endorsing a religion?

Rose said that could involve what officials say in reference to the display.

“I think that it is unlikely that a court would hold that it violates the establishment clause,” Rose said, “but that doesn't mean that somebody won't challenge it.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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