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'In God We Trust' being sought for Pennsylvania schools

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 11:39 p.m.

People see “In God We Trust” on currency, so why not display the words in Pennsylvania schools?

A Republican lawmaker's proposal to do just that is likely to touch off fierce debates within communities and courtrooms.

Education officials and others question the need for the bill authored by Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth Township that would require school districts to post the phrase — America's national motto — within 60 days of passage.

The idea drew immediate criticism from Vic Walczak, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who said it would inject religion into public schools.

“Instead of providing full and adequate funding with (money) bearing the motto, they're just giving them the motto instead,” Walczak said. “I know we would oppose it. The only question is if we would sue upon its passage or wait until a school district enacts it.”

The bill passed the House education committee, 14-9, on Wednesday, mostly along party lines.

Religion has nothing to do with it, Saccone said. He wants to honor the 150th anniversary of having “In God We Trust” stamped on coins.

“It's displaying our national motto. So they can have Harry Potter on the walls, zombies and witches on brooms but not the national motto?” Saccone said. “It would just be posted in the building somewhere so the kids know what the story is behind it. It's about teaching history.”

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said he can't say how the courts would rule but said they have been strict in separation of church and state in public schools.

“There was a surprising precedent that held that the Ten Commandments can be posted in certain contexts but cannot be posted in schools,” Ledewitz said. “It's possible something like the national motto could conceivably be unconstitutional in schools.”

Pennsylvania's connection to the phrase makes it particularly relevant, Saccone said. Although the phrase didn't become the national motto until 1956, when Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved it, a Pennsylvanian was at the helm of the Mint when coins started bearing the words.

James Pollock was governor of Pennsylvania in the 1850s before President Lincoln appointed him as director of the Mint. “In God We Trust” appeared on 2-cent coins in April 1864, while the Civil War raged.

Some education officials said they wouldn't oppose Saccone's bill, but they think the Legislature should address more important issues.

“It's fine, we don't oppose it, but we have some schools with just teachers and a principal with no other staff, and we're making sure we put the national motto on the wall,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “I think we ought to be focusing our energy on books and teachers to educate kids in the schools.”

People living in Saccone's home school district, Elizabeth Forward, have differing opinions.

“I think it's a great idea. Back in the 1800s, Congress approved it to put on money. We need to be reminded to put our trust in God in good times and not just in bad times,” said Tracy Johnston Caruso, 44, of Elizabeth Township, the president of Central Elementary School PTO.

“I don't believe it's a waste of money or time. I think the people would be in favor of it.”

Elizabeth Forward School Board President Philip Martell, 43, doesn't have a problem with the motto but said of Saccone: “This is what he's spending his day doing? He needs to find more useful legislation. I would hope he's finding ways to solve funding problems facing public schools. That's what the people elected him to do.”

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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