A new law has taken effect in Arkansas that provides for the display of the national motto “In God We Trust” in public schools. Unsurprisingly it has atheists up in arms with their usual objections about so-called separation of church and state.
According to The Washington Times, atheist organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation have lodged their complaints about the law — Act 911 –and made clear that they believe the posters bearing the motto constitute a usage of “the machinery of the state to promote Christianity.”
The law requires public schools which are operated by state funds to display framed posters of the national motto, as well as a U.S. and state flag, in classrooms, libraries and other public buildings, provided the posters are donated using private funds.
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the bill was initially introduced in the 2017 legislative session by state Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville and was passed into law with only three votes against it.
Dotson’s reasoning behind the law was that he believed an understanding of our nation’s history and heritage was important, especially considering many school children weren’t even aware that “In God We Trust” is the national motto. “(P)utting it up and displaying it is something I think is very valuable,” he said.
He even personally delivered a batch of posters to the Bentonville School Board in February. Those posters had been donated by the Arkansas-based American History and Heritage Foundation, and featured frames purchased by a local American Legion post that acquired them from a Hobby Lobby craft store for a discount.
That school district, among a few others, hoped to have the posters and flags up by Spring Break, but other districts claimed to be unaware of any posters being donated to them and had no stated plans to do anything about the new law.
Of course, atheist groups were enraged, chief among them the New Jersey-based American Atheists organization, who sent a letter to all Arkansas school districts in September warning against compliance with the law, as they believed the posters represented “state-sponsored religious expression in public schools.”
The atheists noted that Dotson himself had described the law as an “acknowledgement of God in public life” and that youth pastor Chris Reed of Bauxite’s Pleasant Hill Baptist Church declared of the law, “I think it’s vital that we have that spiritual influence in our schools.”
“This is who we are, this is who we have been, and hopefully, I pray, that’s who we continue to be moving forward. In the name of Jesus that our lives will be directed as we obediently follow Christ,” Reed added.
“The statements from Rep. Dotson and the religious groups that have pledged to donate the displays betray the true purpose of this legislation,” stated organization president David Silverman. “This isn’t about heritage or history. This is about sneaking tributes to their god into our public schools. We will not allow atheists or members of minority religious groups to be made to feel like second-class citizens in Arkansas.”
“The courts have long guarded against attempts to inject religion into public schools, even under the guise of so-called ‘ceremonial deism,’” chimed in organization attorney Geoffrey T. Blackwell. “When the people advocating for this law tell us it’s about acknowledging religion and pushing religion on public school students, we should take them at their word. It’s a sham, and we’re not going to sit idly by while the rights of students, parents, and teachers are being attacked.”
“Requiring that ‘In God We Trust’ appears in every public school classroom and library in Arkansas sends the unmistakable message that those of us who don’t trust in gods are outside the mainstream and not full members of the community,” Blackwell added. “The Establishment Clause requires that our schools avoid doing exactly that.”
Their letter to the 262 district superintendents throughout Arkansas warned that the posters would be unconstitutional and threatened to file a suit against the state if any schools ignored their plea to reject the donated posters.
The atheist organization opposed to America’s national motto may go ahead and file their lawsuit against the state, but given the explicitly stated fact that no state funds are being used in regard to the posters bearing the motto, and the only requirement imposed on schools is that they be displayed if donated, it is unclear exactly how such a lawsuit challenging on the grounds of supposed state-imposed Christianity will play out in the courts.
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