Utah has required schools to have ‘In God We Trust’ posted publicly for 17 years

This July 23, 2019 photo shows "In God We Trust" stenciled in a wall at South Park Elementary in Rapid City, S.D. When students return to public schools across South Dakota this fall there should be a new message displayed in a common area, a cafeteria, entryway or other prominent location. A new state law that took effect this month requires all public schools in the state's 149 districts to paint, stencil or otherwise display the national motto "In God We Trust." The South Dakota lawmakers who proposed the law said the requirement was meant to inspire patriotism in the state's public schools. (Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP)

A recent law in South Dakota requiring the phrase “In God We Trust” to be prominently displayed in all public schools was meant to “inspire patriotism,” according to the legislators who sponsored it.

But it has quickly touched off a national debate over whether the message — the motto for the United States — instead promotes religion. Some have said it pushes the boundary of separation of church and state. Others have argued it illegally puts God in the classroom.

In Utah schools, though, the issue is nothing new. The red and religious state has had a similar law on the books for slightly more than 17 years now. It was signed by then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt in March 2002.

“It was a piece of legislation that made sense to me,” the Republican told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. “I thought it would be consistent with the thoughts of the citizens of Utah.”

Before his signature, the bill passed through both the House — at 65 to 6 — and Senate — at 19 to 3 — with just a bit of dissent, with some calling it “a Mormon bill” and others labeling it “silly.”

“I refuse to believe that trusting in a higher power is truly silly,” said then-Rep. Richard Siddoway during the debate on the House floor. “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. So ‘In God We Trust,’ whether that be a Christian god, a Jewish god or a Muslim god.”

Originally, Siddoway had written the bill to require the phrase be in every classroom. He later amended it to say it only had to be “in one or more prominent places within each school building,” according to the law currently on the books.

It falls under “Instruction in American history and government.” And it follows a line in the statute that says: “There shall be no content-based censorship of American history and heritage documents referred to in this section due to their religious or cultural nature” — including the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence, which both mention God in some form.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah opposed the law, calling it “a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protections.” But the group declined to fight it in the courts because of previous decisions upholding use of the motto in public places.

That includes, most prominently, the ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Utah — in 1996 that using the phrase on money doesn’t violate the Constitution. Other courts have ruled, though never in an educational situation, that the phrase has been stripped of its religious significance over time.

One judge instead said the motto can “serve the secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions.” Another noted it “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

The ACLU of Utah countered that by suggesting: “Children have not been subjected to the phrase’s wide use and hence it has not lost its religious significance from a child’s perspective. A child could easily interpret the phrase as the government’s endorsement of religion.”

The group said at the time that it would challenge the law only if another state was successful in doing so and created a precedent. “We are not aware of any legal cases on this topic since 2001-2002 that would change the legal landscape on this issue,” said current ACLU of Utah spokesman Jason Stevenson.

Utah’s law, however, is not as specific as other states. In South Dakota, the most recent to adopt the requirement, the phrase “In God We Trust” must be on a sign that measures at least 12 inches by 12 inches. Florida and Arizona have similar statutes. In Utah, though, the only requirement is that it be “prominent” in each school building.

Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said “what equals prominence is up to discretion. … I suppose technically you could do it by gluing a penny to the wall.” (The phrase first appeared on U.S. money during the Civil War.)

Some schools here have painted a patriotic mural and included the phrase in that. Peterson had a photo of one example that showed a mural with students singing the Pledge of Allegiance with “In God We Trust” written on a chalkboard behind them.

For compliance with the law, Utah public schools must sign a form each year that says they have the slogan up. That “assurance form” also requires them to have their students recite the pledge each day and participate in annual emergency drills — also required to receive state funding.

“We take them at their word that they’re doing that,” Peterson said, though he noted if there’s a concern the state could conduct an audit.

In 1956, Congress voted to make “In God We Trust” the national motto. Two years before that, President Dwight Eisenhower had added the words “under God” to the pledge. It was meant to distinguish America from the Soviet Union, which was considered a godless place at the time.

But current state Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, takes issue with that reasoning. He wrote in a tweet Friday: “If people and institutions who feel strongly about defending religious freedom don’t recognize the need to defend the right of people NOT to believe, the freedom FROM religion, they are missing an essential aspect of religious liberty.”

Leavitt said he believes the South Dakota case will not be the last time there’s a debate over the phrase. “We’re at a time when people would like to make it difficult to acknowledge religious belief in America," he suggested. "This is an effort on their part to do that.”