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Butler County OKs public 'In God We Trust' display

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 5:18 p.m.

Visitors to the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton, Tenn., each day pass beneath black granite plaques over several entrances that bear the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

“It's the national motto with a long-standing tradition,” County Mayor Terry Clark said. “I think that people yearn for that kind of simplicity and meaning. They're looking for that.”

The Butler County Commissioners voted 2-1 on April 16 to approve displaying “In God We Trust” in the public meeting room of the county government center, despite objections from Commissioner James Eckstein because it involves religion in government matters.

The county seems to be on solid legal ground with its planned display. The American Civil Liberties Union would unlikely mount a legal challenge, though it considers the motto “divisive,” said ACLU attorney Sara Rose.

“The Supreme Court has signaled time and again it's very unlikely to disturb references to God and the national motto and the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Charles Haynes, an attorney with the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. “The heart of the matter is the court generally does not see these references as rising to the level as establishing religion.”

That hasn't deterred the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., — the same group in 2011 that threatened to sue Ellwood City over the placement of a creche on borough property — from suing the U.S. Treasury and other government agencies to have the motto removed from currency.

“It's a very bad violation,” foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said. “Generations have grown up thinking God is part of our government, but it's a godless Constitution.”

The organization filed its lawsuit on Feb. 1, 2013, in U.S. District Court in New York City.

The court dismissed the case in September.

It's now on appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, also in New York City.

A day after the first sign went up in July on the Tennessee courthouse, a man awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge sought to have the case dismissed because of the signs.

Kenneth Darrin Fisher, accused of plotting to kill his wife, claimed in court documents that the motto violated his freedom-of-worship rights. Fisher is of Cherokee descent and follows Native American spirituality. Attorney David Stuart said the courthouse inscription converts the building into a “temple of fundamentalist Christianity,” in conflict with the First Amendment, the Associated Press reported.

Online court records showed that Fisher withdrew his motion and is set to enter a plea on May 12.

The nonprofit foundation, In God We Trust - America Inc., contacted Butler County, prompting it to display the motto, said Butler Commissioner A. Dale Pinkerton. The organization is pushing city and county governments nationwide to display the motto to promote patriotism.

Butler City Council on Thursday approved placing the motto in city council chambers.

The phrase “In God We Trust,” first appeared on coins in 1864.

Congress designated the phrase as the national motto in 1956, replacing “E Pluribus Unum,” during the Cold War when the Soviet Union represented a godless state. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation into law. The following year, the motto began appearing on paper money.

Conservative justices, Haynes said, hold that the motto has been part of the nation's fabric for more than 200 years. More liberal justices, he said, know “the moment In God We Trust is struck down, the next day, there would be a Constitutional amendment to the First Amendment to allow that.”

“The court doesn't see it as an issue that will lead to state establishment of religion,” Haynes said.

Instead of federal lawsuits, a better way to challenge the motto might be on the local level, Gaylor said.

“Maybe it's more in-your-face, that someone will go before a city council and argue that it disenfranchises nonbelievers,” she said. “It's important for people at the local level to express their consternation and their dismay.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or

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