To protect students and religious freedom, reject the 'In God We Trust' bill (HB 965)

“In God We Trust” was added to the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield recently.
“In God We Trust” was added to the Johnston County Courthouse in Smithfield recently. Rick Hester

Last week, the N.C. House of Representatives passed House Bill 965, which would require that every public school in North Carolina display the words “In God We Trust” in a “prominent location.” Hopefully, the Senate will reject this bill because it undermines the separation of church and state, which is one of the most vital ways to protect the religious freedom of our students and families.

Families and students in North Carolina practice a variety of religions and faiths, and some do not believe in God. Freedom of religion means that parents — not school officials or state legislatures — have the right to decide how their children may receive religious education, whether at their church or synagogue or at home.

Parents should be able to trust that their children will not be evangelized while attending our public schools. Public schools should respect all students — whether they or their families believe in God or not — and no students should be made to feel like outsiders because of their faith.

Allison Mahaley

The goal of these bills, however, is to require our public schools to promote a belief in God. For example, when Sen. Regina Barrow pushed a similar bill in Louisiana, she said: “[m]aybe young people in the classroom can realize there’s a higher power than themselves, and they will begin to look at that.” And Rep. Kim Davis of Florida, supporting ed her nearly identical bill in Florida, explained that God “is the light. And our schools need light in them like never before.”

Yet, religious freedom requires that our public schools remain neutral, not promote religious belief to a captive and impressionable audience.

Jerry Morris

That we are seeing this bill in North Carolina is no surprise. This year, 26 “In God We Trust” bills were introduced in state legislatures as part of a campaign called Project Blitz.

To implement the campaign, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which sponsors the N.C. Prayer Caucus, has issued a 116-page guide for state legislators on how to pass bills that use our government to promote fundamentalist Christianity. The connection to Project Blitz is clear: The first stage starts with In God We Trust bills. In addition, all four sponsors of this bill are members of the N.C. Prayer Caucus — and two sponsors are the caucus’ co-chairs.

The Project Blitz strategy is to slowly chip away at the separation of church and state until our protections for religious freedom are gone. After bills like this one, it urges legislators pass measures bills that even more explicitly promote religion in public schools, such as teaching about the Bible or protecting public school teachers who pray with students. And, in the end, it calls for broad bills that create religious exemptions to each and every state law, including laws designed to protect the health and welfare of all North Carolinians.

To be sure, supporters of this bill are correct to note that “In God We Trust” is our national motto. But that is not the reason why its sponsors want to spend $25,000 of your taxpayer dollars to display this phrase in our public schools rather than use that money to pay teachers or fund educational programs. According to Project Blitz, motto bills “can have enormous impact” to create “later support for [government] to support religious displays” and a ““significant ripple effect on subsequent measures, policies, and agency actions.”

The supporters of this bill are relying on you to assume that passage of this In God We Trust bill is no big deal. We hope that you see this measure as the first step in the bigger Project Blitz strategy, and that you see it through the eyes of the students who just want to attend their public school without being made to feel like outsiders.

HB 965 also trivializes and harms religion. Choosing to engage with religion can be a powerful thing, but it is also a very personal journey and should be just that — a choice. Trusting in God is something each of us must decide to do for ourselves, sometimes over and over again.

As people of faith, we don’t need a sign in a school to tell us to live our faith. We do that every day through our beliefs, our works, and our actions. This bill, on the hand, is just a way to score political points. Why else would the legislature focus on this issue when our state is facing so many other important matters? It takes what is for many a monumental and personal subject—faith—and makes it a partisan issue. It is intended to divide, whether it’s Republicans from Democrats or Christians from non-Christians.

Jerry Morris and Allison Mahaley are the president and past president of the Orange-Durham Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.