A week after the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., when grief-stricken students demanded action at the state Capitol, Rep. Kimberly Daniels took to the floor to promote a measure she said had been inspired by God, who she said spoke to her in a dream.
God “is the light. And our schools need light in them like never before,” the Jacksonville Democrat said Feb. 21. “It is not a secret that we have some gun issues that need to be addressed. But the real thing that needs to be addressed are issues of the heart.”
Her proposal? Ensuring every Florida public school student is educated in a building where “In God We Trust” — the national and Florida state motto — is prominently posted. The bill passed and was signed into law.
Florida is one of seven states this year that passed laws requiring or permitting schools and other public buildings to post “In God We Trust.” Arkansas passed a similar measure in 2017, and Arizona this year allowed schools to post in English the state’s motto, which appears in Latin on the state seal: “God Enriches.”
These laws have emerged as some religion advocates press to expand references to God and the Bible in public schools and other public venues. Advocates for these measures were heartened by President Trump’s picks for the U.S. Supreme Court, both of whom have sided with religious interests.
Some states and lawmakers have gone further, fighting to allow or require the Ten Commandments in public schools and public places. Voters in Alabama this month overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that permits the Ten Commandments to be posted on government-funded property. Backers hope it spurs litigation, hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court and its conservative majority would rule in their favor.
Arkansas state Rep. Jim Dotson, a Republican, said the national motto reflects a central part of what it means to be an American. He sponsored the 2017 bill requiring the posting of “In God We Trust” in classrooms and has since helped lawmakers in other states pass similar laws.
“Our history and our heritage is incredibly important, making sure that we as a nation remember our roots, remember where we came from,” Dotson said. “America is an exceptional nation. It’s the greatest nation in the history of this planet. Obviously, that success is attributed not just to individuals but probably some higher power than ourselves.”
Even though the laws often pass by substantial margins, some members of the public take deep offense at the posting of “In God We Trust,” saying it violates the Constitution and the nation’s legacy of keeping religion out of government.
At its core, the recent spate of laws is part of a long-running battle between two competing visions of the nation — a fight that started not long after Puritans, seeking refuge from religious persecution, arrived.
Americans have long disagreed about the role religion should play in public life. Some argue the acknowledgment of God is central to the nation’s identity. Others point to the founders’ efforts to eschew state-sponsored religion.
Much of that battle has taken place in public schools. The Supreme Court in 1962 struck down school prayer and in another case ruled against a Pennsylvania school that required students to start the day with the Lord’s prayer and a Bible reading.
More than five decades later, educators still struggle to find the balance between safeguarding the religious expression of students and teachers while remaining appropriately neutral on religion and culture.
The high court has struck down graduation prayer and school-sponsored prayer that is led by a student. There have been battles over whether religious groups can rent out school facilities, with religious groups prevailing. A school in the D.C. area tried to prevent two Muslim students from covering their heads during Ramadan. In rural Virginia, a lesson about Islam stirred so much anger that the school district had to shut down, in the face of emailed threats.
Schools have also wrestled with how to teach about Islam, an issue that has become fraught amid rising Islamophobia.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family supports two Christian schools in Michigan, has promoted vouchers that allow parents to use public money to send their children to religious schools.
Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, said these tensions often flare when the nation is in tumult.
“We’ve had really from the beginning of our country, even in the Colonial period, we’ve had a tension or really an argument about what kind of country we are,” Haynes said. “When we have a period of great anxiety about our nation and who we are and we have a great upheaval . . . this comes backs to the surface.”
It happened after the Civil War, when religion advocates pushed to amend the Constitution to include references to God, and during the Cold War, when evangelical Christians successfully inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and pushed to make “In God We Trust” the national motto.
Haynes said we may be in such a moment now, with growing polarization between Americans who have radically different values and perspectives on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and growing anxiety over how immigration is changing the face of the nation.
Trump harnessed and stoked that anxiety, Haynes argues, with his anti-Muslim rhetoric and when he cast Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. This may have compelled some to fight to return the nation to what they believe are its religious roots. School shootings have also contributed to that anxiety.
That’s why Daniels, of Florida, fought “to remind our children of the foundation of this country, which was founded on people who came for religious liberty,” she said in February.
Even though Daniels’s measure passed, some viewed it as an empty gesture and accused the lawmaker of capitalizing on a tragedy to advance her agenda of pushing religion in schools.
Greg Pittman teaches honors U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the Florida school where 17 people died in the February shooting. Pittman said he is religious but resents the effort to bring religion into schools following tragedy.
“I do not see how placing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ is going to protect us from someone coming down the hallway and shooting students and teachers,” Pittman said.
Annie Gaylor, who leads an organization that fights to remove religious references from public spaces, said the motto has “an exclusionary message” that favors the religious over the nonreligious.
“They’re using it as a weapon to proselytize to schoolchildren,” said Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Views on the measure remain mixed at Stoneman Douglas.
Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a 17-year-old survivor of the shooting and student activist, said she appreciated the initiative, saying the school could use more “positivity.”
“It’s powerful because it reassures people of faith,” Ho-Shing said.
Though Pittman and Ho-Shing disagreed on the measure, they agreed on one thing: Wherever the motto was posted, it was not easy to find on the sprawling campus.
“If it’s somewhere in our school,” Pittman said, “I don’t know where it is.”