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Staff photo by Tim Barber / Office personnel at East Brainerd Elementary School with a display of framed prints showing patriotic themes, and an American flag inside the school front office. From left are, Telicia Howell, clerical, Marie Rivera, interpreter, and Kay Jetton, school secretary.
some text Staff photo by Tim Barber / Office personnel at East Brainerd Elementary School with a display of framed prints showing patriotic themes, and an American flag inside the school front office. From left are, Janie Frick, family partnership specialist, Telicia Howell, clerical, Marie Rivera, interpreter, and Kay Jetton, school secretary.

An American flag, a dollar bill, a copy of the Declaration of Independence pieced together to display the phrase "In God We Trust."

This is how Hamilton County Schools is complying with a law passed this spring that requires all public schools to display the motto somewhere on campus.

The image, designed by district officials, was framed and distributed to all the county's schools.

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Hamilton County Schools spokesman Tim Hensley said the Americana imagery used with the phrase was intended to display the national motto by incorporating ways the country uses the motto and give context relative to the new law.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill in April, after the legislation passed the Senate unanimously and the House with a 81-8 vote.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said the bill shouldn't bother faithless people and people of other faiths because it's the motto of the country, according to The Associated Press.

some text Staff photo by Tim Barber / A framed patriotic print is on display in the front office at East Brainerd Elementary School. It serves as a backdrop for office personnel with "In God We Trust," and other patriotic themes.

"Our national motto and founding documents are the cornerstone of freedom and we should teach our children about these things," Lynn said.

However, Brandon Gilvin, a senior minister at First Christian Church Chattanooga, disagrees. He believes the phrase "In God We Trust" can mean very different things for different people.

"For someone who is a minister, I don't want the state articulating something in the name of my faith, because it is important that those of us that take this seriously do not have our faith co-opted for political reasons. I'm suspicious of anything that looks like state endorsement of a single faith," Gilvin said.

"The tricky thing for many people is that where 'in God' sounds like generic language for many people, for others it signifies a very specific religious faith," he added. "It becomes pretty exclusionary for a lot of people, particularly religious minorities when it becomes something posted in public schools."

some text Staff photo by Tim Barber / Marie Rivera, interpreter at East Brainerd Elementary School, works near a posted display of "In God We Trust," and other patriotic themes in the front office.

Gilvin's opposition to the phrase represents just one of many different sides of the dispute over the law. Those who oppose it are not necessarily non-Christians or members of other faiths.

Tiff Wilson, a Hamilton County parent, has worked as a spiritual director and studied theology. She agrees with Gilvin that the phrase has been manipulated by politicians.

"It's kind of been hijacked by the far right, and it just has a whole other baggage that goes with it," Wilson said. "If we would actually be considerate and look around at our neighbors, who are these people in this community who are coming to this school?" She said people should "be considerate of that."

She added: "From a theological and spiritual perspective, I very much believe in God, I trust in God, but when we try to say we need to mandate something in the name of God, it's not reflecting the heart of God."

some text In Bradley County, every school has a nameplate with the motto "In God We Trust" displayed, in compliance with a law passed in 2018 requiring every public school in Tennessee to display the phrase. The nameplates were donated by a local trophy shop, according to Patty Phillips, secretary to Bradley County Schools' director of schools. Contributed photo/Times Free Press

Tennessee isn't the only state that has recently decided to display the motto, which became the nation's official motto in 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Arkansas and Florida public schools also are required to showcase it in each school and building used by the districts, and a new law in Alabama allows school districts to consider displaying such imagery.

The Florida bill's sponsor, Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, said displaying the sign was meant to "remind our children of the foundation of this country," according to NPR.

The Blount County school district in Alabama is one of the first to take action on the issue, according to The Associated Press. The school board discussed the possibility of displaying the motto in August and a policy could be drafted within the next month, Blount County Superintendent Rodney Green said.

Other school districts in the Chattanooga region are in the process of complying with Tennessee's law.

Cleveland City Director of Schools Russel Dyer said in an email that the topic would be discussed at the district's next administrators meeting.

"I wanted to ensure the new school year was underway before taking this up with our school principals," Dyer wrote. "We will be following the new law at all schools, but need to work out the internal procedure for placement of the motto."

some text This display was provided to Hamilton County Schools by the district's Communications Office at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, following a law approved by the Tennessee legislature in March that requires all public schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust." Photo provided by Hamilton County Schools. / Contributed photo/Times Free Press

In Bradley County, every school has a nameplate with the motto, donated by a local trophy shop, said Patty Phillips, the secretary to the district's director of schools.

She said there has been no opposition to it, despite the county's history with complaints filed by the The Freedom From Religion Foundation and a Bradley County atheist group, The American Atheists Inc.

In 2017, former Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson pushed for "In God We Trust" decals to be placed on his department's vehicles.

Hensley said Hamilton County has not had specific resistance from the community but has had some individual parents express concerns with the posting of the motto before the display being provided to schools.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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