A well-known phrase appearing in civic buildings across the country will soon appear on the Gaston County Courthouse, despite criticism from secular advocates and others.
In a unanimous vote this month, county commissioners passed a resolution to place the phrase In God We Trust on the marquee of the downtown Gastonia courthouse, in sizable black letters. The county is expected to put it up in coming weeks, paying for the installation with a private donation.
The reason, the resolution says, is to “solemnize public occasions and express confidence in our society.”
“It will be easily recognizable,” said Tracy Philbeck, commissioners chairman and the sponsor of the resolution. He was referring to the phrase, which is the national motto, adding, “It’s who we are.”
The move met with some criticism.
“It’s the same old song and dance,” Karen Turner, second vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Democratic Party, said of the resolution. She cited other ones commissioners have passed, including a symbolic one in November opposing same-sex marriage.
Such actions, she said, suggest that commissioners are not giving their undivided attention to what she and others consider more pressing issues, such as creating jobs and addressing poverty. More than one-fourth of children in the county are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a nonprofit advocate for low-income residents.
“This area is so poor,” Turner said. “We have no resolution about that.”
At a national level, the presence of the phrase in the public sphere has remained a focal point for debate.
Supporters invoke its historical significance, describing it as a sign of patriotism and reverence. Opponents contend the phrase evokes religious sentiments, arguing that it is a violation of the constitutional separation between church and state.
The phrase made its first appearance on some U.S. coins in the mid-1860s. Nearly a century later, in the mid-1950s during the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower declared it the national motto. It was then that the phrase first appeared on paper currency.
But even though it has drawn legal challenges, federal courts have ruled against its removal. In 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives reaffirmed the phrase as the national motto, overwhelmingly passing a resolution encouraging its display in schools and other public institutions.
Some 500 governments across the country have passed resolutions similar to that of the Gaston County’s, according to the U.S. Motto Action Committee, which advocates for displaying the phrase.
The head of that organization, Rick Lanier, a former Davidson County commissioner who successfully fought to have the phrase displayed on the county building in the early 2000s, approached Philbeck a few months ago and requested that Gaston County follow suit.
While Philbeck was hesitant at first, citing potential litigation, he said the county is confident it would withstand any legal challenges.
“I’m surprised that it’s such a controversial topic,” said Commissioner Jason Williams, who co-sponsored the resolution.
Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, “oppose it as a matter of policy,” said Patrick Elliot, a staff attorney for the foundation that has filed a number of lawsuits involving religious expression in the public sphere. The organization learned about the county resolution from a resident, he said.
With the courthouse bearing such a message, he added, “It’s not really a welcoming government facility.”
About a year ago, the organization asked the towns of Dallas, just north of Gastonia, to remove a Nativity scene that had appeared for decades on the lawn of the old county courthouse unless it included other holiday-themed decorations. The town complied, moving the display to an even more prominent location, on private property along a main thoroughfare.
Asked whether he believes the push to display the phrase on public property is only for historical reasons, Elliot called that argument a complete sham, suggesting that commissioners have ulterior motives that are religious.
But to bring a case against the county, the plaintiff would have to prove that commissioners passed the resolution on religious grounds. And even though Philbeck is not silent about his faith – “I”m proud to say that I trust in Christ,” he told a local television station this month – demonstrating that could prove difficult, Elliot said.
Still, he added, “It’s not safe to assume that this would be legal.”
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, dismissed the notion that placing the phrase on the courthouse is unconstitutional as absurd, saying that the separation of church and state was “never meant to sanitize all references to God.”
He cited the ubiquity of the phrase as further validation of its place in society, saying that doing away with it altogether is unlikely.
“You’re going to have change a whole lot of major monuments across the country to do that,” Creech said.
Jake Flannick is a freelance writer. Have a story for Jake? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.