TOPEKA, Kan. – Conservative Republicans are pushing for a law requiring government buildings and schools across Kansas to post the national motto of "In God We Trust," an idea critics say is part of a broader effort by the Christian right to promote their religious beliefs in public life.
A Kansas House committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill sponsored by 13 GOP lawmakers that would, among other things, require all public school classrooms and libraries to post the motto. Under the measure, the motto must be posted as soon as schools, colleges, cities and counties receive donations, either of "durable" posters or money to cover the costs.
It drew immediate opposition from Democrats, and even one conservative Republican expressed concern about the bill's scope. The national American Atheists organization said such a law would stigmatize nonbelievers and religious minorities and represent a step toward harsher anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion measures. The bill mirrors model legislation promoted by some conservative Christian groups.
The hearing Thursday tapped briefly into longstanding tensions between people who want to keep government from promoting religious beliefs and those who argue that faith's role in public life has been narrowed too much. American churches also are wrestling with a rise in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation.
"These bills are not innocuous. They're part of a larger strategy," said American Atheists spokesman Tom Van Denburgh. "A lot of these campaigns are focusing on children. I mean, if you put 'In God We Trust' in schools, you're trying to essentially indoctrinate them."
Eight states require schools to display the national motto, and mandates in Kentucky, Louisiana and South Dakota started this school year, according to the Education Commission of the States. In addition, Arkansas has a law similar to the one Kansas is considering.
Kansas state Rep. Michael Capps, the Wichita Republican and the bill's lead sponsor, said the motto should be displayed to acknowledge the nation's "history and founding principles." Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as the national motto in the 1950s, but Capps said the phrase echoes words in the national anthem and the Declaration of Independence.
Capps noted that federal courts have repeatedly ruled that its display does not violate the guarantees of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. His bill specifies either a durable poster or framed picture with the motto, at least 11 inches by 14 inches, with American and Kansas flags.
Told after the hearing of Atheist America's view that posting the motto would stigmatize non-believers, he said: "I can't control what someone else thinks. It's not my responsibility to be in their heads."
Capps noted that the state constitution mentions God, starting in its preamble and added, "Does having the reference to God in the Kansas state constitution make every atheist feel second-class?"
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Kansas City-area Democrat, said she has "heartburn" over the potential message to atheists. She also raised concern that the bill could allow groups like the Ku Klux Klan to donate posters or money for posters. Capps said donors wouldn't be credited.
Rep. Blake Carpenter, a conservative Wichita-area Republican, asked Capps whether it was "slight overkill" to require the motto to be posted in every classroom and library, rather than in the main entrance of a school.
Capps replied: "Generally speaking, every classroom has had an American flag in it. We don't consider that to be overkill."
Committee Chairman John Barker is a Republican from Abilene, the hometown of President Dwight Eisenhower, who signed the legislation making "In God We Trust" the national motto. But Barker said he personally likes a Latin motto Congress first adopted in the 1780s that remains on the U.S. seal.
"E Pluribus Unum," Barker said. "From many, we are one."