All Kentucky public schools will soon display ‘In God We Trust’

In March, Kentucky passed a law requiring all public schools to display the national motto.

  • The law was sponsored by a Republican legislator who's also a Christian minister.
  • Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union–Kentucky, argue that it's a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
  • For decades, many have tried, unsuccessfully, to have the national motto removed from currency, on which it's appeared since 1864.

Students at Kentucky's public schools will notice something different when classes begin in a few weeks: "In God We Trust" displayed on the buildings' walls.

It's the result of a law Kentucky passed in March that requires the controversial U.S. national motto to be "prominently" displayed somewhere in each public school building. Since, some schools have already displayed plaques or artwork displaying the national motto, while others are still working out the details, reports the Lexington Herald Leader.

Critics of the law say it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, commonly referred to as the "separation of church and state."

"I think it's a blurring of the lines," Penny Christian, president of the 16th District PTA, told the Lexington Herald Leader.

But Christian said that other issues — such as sustaining parent participation and funding public education — are more important, adding that concerned parents and faculty have to choose their battles wisely.

In an open letter sent in February before the law was passed, the Kentucky arm of the American Civil Liberties Union urged state lawmakers not to approve the bill, which was sponsored by Republican Rep. Brandon Reed, a Christian minister. They averred:

"We ask you to refrain from mandating any religious observation or exercise of religion in our public schools. We firmly believe that our legislature should be working to ensure that schools are adequately funded, that teachers are appropriately compensated, and that our students receive the highest quality education possible. . . To do right by our students, these should be our priorities — not mandating that every school in the Commonwealth display a motto that has the appearance of endorsing religion."

​Does the U.S. national motto violate the First Amendment?

U.S. courts have been ruling on this question for decades, generally deciding that the national motto doesn't violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because of a judicial interpretation called accommodationism, which holds that the government may endorse religious establishments, as long as they endorse all religions equally. So, under this framework, "God" is permissible because most religions feature a supreme being, but a specific deity or figure, such as Jesus, would not be.

The Supreme Court also wrote, in 1952's Zorach v. Clauson, that the national motto merely recognizes the existence of a supreme being, but doesn't establish a state church. But that hasn't stopped nonreligious critics from trying to have "In God We Trust" removed from national currency, on which it first appeared on coins in 1864, and on paper notes in 1956.

In 2018, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the national motto didn't violate the rights of Kenneth Mayle, a self-described nontheistic Satanist. Mayle claimed that having the motto on currency forced him to endorse and spread a religious message he didn't believe in, and that its presence discriminated against nonbelievers. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, writing that the national motto "merely acknowledges a part of our nation's heritage (albeit a religious part)."

"The motto's placement on currency has the secular purpose of recognizing the religious component of our nation's history," Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote in her opinion. "And it does not affect current religious practices."

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