Nation increasingly at odds over use of 'God'

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 10:30 p.m.

The fledgling citizens stood and raised their hands inside Courtroom 8A of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Downtown, representing five continents, more than two dozen countries and multiple generations.

Chief U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti read aloud the Oath of Allegiance, concluding with “So help you God.” A chorus of “I do's” followed, and Western Pennsylvania gained 51 citizens.

Though the Establishment Clause of the Constitution says government cannot make laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” theological references permeate the public sphere. They are enshrined in naturalization and witness oaths, and written large into the preamble of the state constitution. They are emblazoned on monuments in the public domain, such as the Leviticus 25:10 passage inscribed on the Liberty Bell.

Such commemorations appear to be at odds with the nation's growing population of atheists, skeptics and freethinkers, triggering constitutional challenges and updates to ceremonial details.

Leading the charge in Pennsylvania to preserve the nation's religious history is Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township. His proposal to get “In God We Trust,” the national motto, displayed in public schools passed the House Education Committee on a 14-9 vote this fall.

“The country was formed on these Judeo-Christian principles,” Saccone said. “They were ingrained in our country.”

One hundred and fifty years ago, the phrase appeared on coins under the direction of U.S. Mint official James Pollock, who was a Pennsylvania governor. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law as the national motto in 1956.

Saccone discussed his proposal recently with nearly 30 honor students at Avonworth High School. Some pushed back on Saccone's concept, pointing out that parents could object or sue. He told them that no one would be forced to view the sign, though it could inspire discussion about the nation's founding.

“There's been this chilling effect in all our school districts” about mentioning God, said Saccone, who sported a lapel pin displaying the motto. “They're worried about being sued.”

He noted that public schools in the past used the Bible as a textbook, and that biblical murals cover the walls of the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

President Obama, Saccone said, swore his Oath of Office on Bibles that once belonged to President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

On June 6, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a six-minute prayer on the radio, asking for faith, strength and peace.

“If we had a president pray like that, it could change a nation,” Saccone told the Tribune-Review.

Last year, Saccone's “Year of the Bible” resolution prompted a lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization of freethinkers. The judge granted Saccone legislative immunity, but Annie Laurie Gaylor, the Wisconsin group's co-founder, said the case drew the most potential plaintiffs of any in recent history.

Courts have deemed “In God We Trust” as secular in nature when atheists have challenged its constitutionality, considering the use of God ceremonial rather than religious. Still, Gaylor said, Saccone's proposal is a “terrible idea,” one that crosses the line of proselytizing in public.

“He's misusing his office to promote his very personal religious views,” Gaylor said.

Freethinkers, skeptics and nonreligious Americans in the 21st century are seeing the best and worst of times, she said.

As of 2012, 19.6 percent of Americans were unaffiliated with any religion, according to Pew Research Center data. In 1972, 5.1 percent of Americans identified as having no religious preference, according to the General Social Surveys from NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization.

“This is a huge sea change, and it's happening so fast the politicians and the courts have not caught up with the changing demographic,” Gaylor said.

Secularists sometimes have the benefit of options — at naturalization ceremonies, citizens who don't want to say, “So help me God,” can choose to “solemnly affirm.” Gaylor's group encourages people who do not believe in religious oaths to request affirmations in other arenas, as when being sworn in at court.

The Air Force recently made “So help me God” optional during the Honor Oath for cadets, said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The move drew ire from some religious communities, said Lynn, a minster with the United Church of Christ.

Lynn said the U.S. Constitution intentionally avoids taking a position on religions.

“When you look at the division in other parts of the world over religion, you realize how wise it was we decided in America the government would not pick favorites,” Lynn said. “It would simply let everybody do what we wanted to do.”

Still, case law on the Establishment Clause is notoriously unclear, said Bruce Ledewitz, constitutional law expert and professor at Duquesne University whose research has focused on secularism and the church and state divide.

Religious mentions with a historical context generally remain untouched — such as having the Ten Commandments on a public building for decades on end. But in this case, having the national motto in a school could be a violation because the law requires children to attend, Ledewitz said.

“There's inherent coercion,” Ledewitz said. “You can't avoid it if you want to.”

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case challenging the pre-meeting prayers of a town board in a Rochester, N.Y., suburb. Critics said the prayers were “demonstrably Christian,” Ledewitz said, while similar invocations elsewhere have shown more diversity.

Ledewitz said legislative affirmations, instead of prayers, could incorporate a larger variety of religions or even artists, anyone who can offer a meditation for officials to observe.

Believers and nonbelievers may find common messages in these themes, Ledewitz said.

“A phrase like ‘In God We Trust' is certainly a sectarian, religious affirmation, but it also stands for an affirmation that reality is trustworthy,” he said. “Secularists may be throwing out the meaningful baby with the religious bath water.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or

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