“In God We Trust” has been on American money since the 1950s, and some consider the line as much a part of patriotism as the Pledge of Allegiance or the United States flag. For others, though, it’s a divisive phrase that sends the message that some Americans — those who hold religious beliefs consistent with the majority — are more valued as American citizens than those who don’t share those beliefs.
That’s why, when the phrase began to pop up on police cars, people began contacting the Freedom From Religion Foundation for legal help. The organization has been sending letters to police departments across the nation, telling them that “In God We Trust” stickers on vehicles belonging to a government agency, such as a police department, send a message of government preference for one religion over others, or for religion over non-religion.
The FFRF is warning departments that this is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which courts have interpreted to forbid government from expressing religious preference.
Lately, a few law enforcement departments have gotten a great deal of attention for their responses, in which they used language that veers somewhat from the formal and professional to ensure the organization that “In God We Trust” would not be removed from vehicles.
For example, here’s the response (PFF) from the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee, consisting entirely of the word “no” in all capitals in a large font.
Then there was the Childress Police Department in Texas. Their response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation went viral after being shared on the Department’s own Facebook page.
Yes, that letter actually ends with the department telling the FFRF to “go fly a kite.”
Sheriff Moats, of Polk County, Alabama, also defended his department’s decision to place “In God We Trust” on patrol cars. According to the New York Times, he said that he wasn’t sure why an atheist would have a problem with the stickers, since they don’t ask anyone else to believe, only express what the members of his department believe.
The use of “In God We Trust” by government agencies has been challenged before, so far to no avail.
However, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has seen success in a very similar case recently.
The organization’s attorneys sent a letter to the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, in Alabama, asking them to remove a reference to a Bible verse from their patrol vehicles.
The Sheriff’s Office was advised by the county administrator to comply with the request and remove the Biblical reference from cars.
“We contacted our liability insurance carrier and their attorneys said if we take this to court they said we’re going to lose.”
Of course, unlike “In God We Trust,” this verse isn’t emblazoned on U.S. currency, hasn’t been challenged in courts and upheld as having a secular purpose as a national motto, and doesn’t have a long precedence of being protected. Still, it suggests that at least some police departments are taking seriously the challenges to their use of government speech to promote religious ideals.
Though the FFRF is headquartered in Wisconsin (a fact detractors often claim makes their intervention irrelevant in other localities), they have members across the country, and only take legal action when there is a plaintiff who has grounds — that is, one actually affected by the issue. So far, the group has only sent letters about the “In God We Trust” stickers, but with several departments standing firm, it’s quite possible that one or more cases could proceed to court.
If so, the question will arise again: is “In God We Trust” an expression of religious preference on the part of government agencies? One department’s response may support claims of divisiveness, discrimination, and government establishment of religion: according to the News-Leader, Sheriff Jim Arnott, of Greene County, Missouri, openly declared that any officer who was bothered by driving a car with “In God We Trust” on it could simply find a different job.