As a recent Schreiber graduate, but more importantly as a member of this community and a proud American citizen, I am appalled at the school board's decision to accept and display plaques reading "In God We Trust" in our middle and high schools.
Keep in mind that I in no way mean to sound unpatriotic. For almost 50 years "In God We Trust" has served as one of our national mottos. And I applaud both the school district and the community of Port Washington for making good-faith efforts to help our students find means by which to deal with the recent tragic acts of terrorism. Moreover, I'd say that religion and prayer can be powerful and invaluable tools for anyone looking for a way to cope or a source for understanding. I encourage everyone to consider them. That being said, though, the display of these religiously oriented plaques in our public schools is the wrong way to handle this important issue.
There are quite a few critical problems that arise with the display of "In God We Trust" plaques. I will simply outline them as follows:
1. They Aren't Educational. The school board members in favor of hanging these plaques say that they are legally protected. In fact they are. But only in an educational context. Supreme Court decisions have made it pretty clear that it is acceptable to display something like a plaque saying, "In God We Trust" when it is done with an educational purpose. Writing the two words "national motto" on the bottom of the plaque does not change their intent from religious to educational. Most adults, let alone 7th grade students, are unaware that we adopted the motto "In God We Trust" in the 1950s because Communism preached atheism, the belief in no God. To distance ourselves from Russia, we adopted a national motto contrary to their belief system. If these plaques will be educational, they should be surrounded with information explaining why this is our national motto, how it was derived, and what it means.
2. Like it or not, these signs impose monotheistic religion on everyone. The signs say "In God We Trust," Not "In Gods We Trust," not "In Atheism We Trust," not "In Allah We Trust." They make it very clear - one God. If you aren't Christian or Jewish, this sign doesn't apply to you. It doesn't matter whether or not it is the national motto. Any student who doesn't believe what the sign says is just plain ignored.
So one might be tempted to say, "If it's not your religion, don't look at it. Don't believe it." But here's the problem: practically from the beginning of life, kids are taught that schools are sources of authority. They learn that if a teacher or the school says it, it must be true. If students didn't trust what their school says, the schools would be useless. Now we're hanging signs that say that there is one God. If the school says it, it must be true, right? Who is 13-year-old Justin to question what his school says? Have we crossed the boundary between church and state? When Justin believes that there is only one God because the school told him so, we have not only crossed the boundary - we have insulted it. Schools may not instruct students how to practice religion. These signs do exactly the opposite.
3. Plaques saying, "In God We Trust" are going to be more divisive than they are unifying. Prior to the 1950s, the national motto was "E Pluribus Unim," Latin for "One From Many." The old motto preached unity. It's ironic that hanging the current motto in our schools will have the opposite effect - it will drive kids apart.
Our goal right now should be doing our best to create a sense of national unity, particularly among young people. But here we are hanging signs that recognize only two of the many religions present in our community! There have been incidences of violence across the country in the last few weeks against anyone who isn't Judeo-Christian. Why on earth would the school actually do something that makes religious differences even more apparent? Instead of telling impressionable students that there is only one God, and hence really only one or two religions, we should do our best to encourage students of all faiths to bind together and help one another in this time of difficulty. Making religion an issue in our schools will serve only to bring chastisement and discomfort for those who don't follow the majority. How could that possibly help our learning environment?
4. Hanging these plaques is contrary to the education going on the very same buildings! In their first history class in 9th grade, most students learn the word "ethnocentrism." I still remember learning it myself four years ago. It is defined as "the use of one culture as a measuring stick by which to judge other cultures." In other words, it is ethnocentric to say that the US is better than England just because we drive on the right hand side of the road. Students, from day one, are told that it is wrong to say that one culture is better than another. They are taught to value all cultures and religions, no matter how different they are. Then the leave the classroom and go downstairs through the lobby. On their way through, they see the sign saying "In God We Trust." These plaques suggest that one culture, Judeo-Christianity, takes precedence over another - those that believe in many gods or none at all. But didn't they just learn that ethnocentrism is wrong?
5. By allowing these signs to be displayed in schools, this community helps set a dangerous precedent for future church-state issues. The Supreme Court makes decisions based on two components: legal arguments and public opinion. As much as the court wants to stay above public moods and opinions, they are not about to hand down a decision that makes the whole country furious. So how do they gauge public opinion? One of the ways is by seeing how often the public has challenged the issue in the past. If we keep our mouths shut, if we sit back and allow this to happen because it's just one little sign, if we don't act because it's too much work for too small a cause, we tell the country that it is all right to blur the line between church and state in our town. If the Supreme Court hears a case about hanging "In God We Trust" plaques in schools, it unquestionably will look for information about rallies, protests, or court actions. If we do nothing, they see nothing. And if they see that no one complained when this happened, especially in our town, their next decision might just allow for even for even more religion in classrooms.
The terrible terrorist attacks against our country were also attacks on our way of life. When faced with such an egregious challenge to our government, we cannot shy away. We cannot back down and say it is all right to sidestep the Constitution. When we begin to ignore the Bill of Rights and allow religion in schools, we are losing the philosophical battle with terrorism.
We cannot shred the Constitution. We cannot abridge people's rights. The worst thing we could possibly do is ignore the set of laws that govern our great nation. Support the first amendment and the wall between church and state. Defend the Constitution. Fight for America. Stand up to forces that would have us preach religion in public schools.