(Stone County sheriff's office) Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader, left, displaying bumper stickers placed on his department’s patrol cars. (Stone County Sheriff’s Office)

“In God We Trust.”

Over the past few weeks, bumper stickers carrying that motto have been placed on cars driven by police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters in Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and elsewhere.

It’s not clear exactly where — or when — the trend began, but it appears to have spread via social media and been driven by personal initiatives in various agencies. And while many people in these communities have expressed support for the stickers, their usage by law enforcement has sparked some protests: Critics say the stickers promote religious belief, and some secular groups have asked agencies to remove them.

In Missouri, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said he got the idea from Green County Sheriff Jim Arnott. “There has been no better time than now to proudly display our national motto,” Rader told the Stone County Chronicle. “I’m very humbled at the amount of support behind it.”

A Facebook post by Rader’s department went viral, generating 2 million views, he told the paper.

(Bay County Sheriff's Department) (Bay County sheriff’s department)

In the Florida panhandle, Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen said there are now about 30 surrounding agencies with the decals. He was inspired to print 200 bumper stickers bearing “In God We Trust” after he received an e-mail that contained the phrase.

“It’s just right now it seems like in our country law enforcement has been painted with a brush that we’re bad guys,” he told The Post. “So I was trying to think of something that might set a fire to our guys. We want to be proud and we want people to be proud of us, and we know we’re better than how people portray us.”

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McKeithen was going to pay for the stickers himself, but the sign company that printed them covered the costs. Soon word spread and nearby agencies asked Bay County for some of the stickers. An anonymous donor offered to pay for more of the bumper stickers, McKeithen said, and junior deputies handed out 800 bumper stickers Monday to residents who came by for them.

While the bumper stickers may be interpreted as patriotic by some, the religious element isn’t something McKeithen wants to obscure. “I’m not hiding from the fact that it’s religious and I’m not trying to make an excuse for the fact that it’s religious,” he said. “Morals and ethics — that’s kind of what law enforcement’s supposed to be about.” At his agency, “we still pray. We pray before we go to a horrible situation where we think someone could get hurt or killed.”

McKeithen added: “You don’t have to be a Christian to trust in God, because you think of all the people in this world that bad things happen to them and at the last moment, they say, ‘Oh God; please God help me.’ ”

Kudos to Sheriff Mike Mock and the Franklin County Sheriff’ Office for taking an “In God We Trust” stand. Thank you Sheriff Mock.

Posted by Frank McKeithen – Bay County Sheriff on Saturday, July 11, 2015

“In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in the 1800s, due in part to the “increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War,” according to the Department of Treasury.

“No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense,” Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase wrote to the director of the Mint in 1861. “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”

“In God We Trust” has not continuously appeared on American coinage since. But in 1956, the phrase became the official national motto; Congress passed a joint resolution that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law.

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But the motto’s usage on public buildings and property has been decried by those who say it breaches the wall between church and state. In 2013, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 plaintiffs sued the Treasury Department, claiming discrimination against non-believers.

As for the bumper stickers, protests have cropped up in some of the communities where they’re being used by emergency responders. A handful of protesters, including a local atheist group, protested Florida’s Bonifay Police Department; the protesters were met by 300 supporters of the bumper stickers, the Holmes County Advertiser reported.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters last week to at least seven departments in Mississippi, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, asking them to remove the bumper stickers, South Carolina NBC affiliate WCBD-TV reported.

“It is inappropriate for the sheriff’s office to display ‘In God We Trust’ on county property,” foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote. “The fact that these stickers were privately funded indicates that you know it is inappropriate for the government to fund religious statements.”

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Another organization, the Original Motto Project, has offered to provide stickers with “E Pluribus Unum” (meaning “Out of Many, One”) instead, the Holmes County Advertiser reported. “We feel that this phrase will provide an inclusive statement to the citizens of the city of Bonifay,” group president Robert Ray wrote.

“Society works better when state and church are kept separate because it creates a fair and equal place for all of us to live,” Bonifay protest organizer Wesley Wilson, 18, told the Advertiser. “The saying ‘In God We Trust’ that has been put on public property violates that. … Law enforcement is here to serve everyone, and that saying (isn’t representative) of all who live here.”

In Bay County, McKeithen defended the stickers, saying they carried the national motto and were offered to deputies to voluntarily place on patrol cars. And, McKeithen added, he told a small group of protesters at his station Monday: “I will drive just as fast to your house as to the preacher’s house if you need help.”

This post has been updated to correct the translation of “E Pluribus Unum.”