Gregory A. Clark: Public schools are not the place to preach about trusting God

“In God We Trust”? Hardly.

Imagine, for example, that former Rep. Richard Siddoway, pious proponent of mandating “In God We Trust” displays in Utah public schools, were choking uncontrollably on a communion wafer. Riffing on a Lawrence Krauss meme, you give Siddoway the choice between trusting in the Almighty — or the Heimlich maneuver. Verily, even Siddoway would pick Heimlich over Jesus to avoid meeting his Maker.

So too, claiming “In God We Trust” isn’t religiously motivated is a sham. It’s Schrödinger’s motto: Believers promote “In God We Trust” precisely because it’s religious. But when others rightly object to its religiosity, believers claim it’s not really religious after all. The same disingenuous sleight-of-hand was attempted in the Utah Highway Patrol crosses case. Defendants argued that the Christian crosses on government property weren’t really religious — but also that government can legally use religious symbols — like (yup) a roadside cross.

So too, “In God We Trust” purportedly isn’t religious. Yet the Utah law that mandates its display prohibits censorship of content due to its — wait for it — religious nature.

It’s not religious? Try mandating “We Don’t Trust in God” signage in schools, and wait for the howls.

And don’t get me started on license plates. “John Adams said our Constitution was made for only a religious and moral people,” preached Gov. Gary Herbert, signing “In God We Trust” plates into law. “The Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution … all mention God in some form,” noted The Salt Lake Tribune article.

Let’s be clear about what that actually means. And let’s drop the pretense that religion equals patriotism or long-term American history. As The Tribune correctly elaborated, “under God” wasn’t added to the pledge till 1954, as an explicit counterpart to “godless” communism. “In God We Trust” was similarly adopted as our national motto shortly thereafter, following earlier usage on coins “to relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”

Not religiously motivated? History indicates otherwise.

Ironically, the U.S. government is a secular government, not a religious one, so the U.S. government is officially “godless,” too. The word “God” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. “Jesus” is also missing. The Constitution mentions religion only twice: To forbid its use as a test for public office (Article VI); and in the First Amendment, which prohibits government favoritism toward religion. The only quasi-mention of a deity comes at the end, where “the Year of our Lord” simply indicates the date.

The Constitution is our nation’s founding legal document. The Declaration of Independence is not. Regardless, Thomas Jefferson, its author, famously championed a “wall of separation between church and state.”

The Tribune also noted that Utah law “requires [public schools] to have their students recite the pledge every day.” That’s not completely true. To Utah’s credit, Utah code allows students to opt out of saying the pledge. It even mandates that “students shall be instructed that … participation in the pledge of allegiance is voluntary and not compulsory,” and that that teachers show respect for students who opt out.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, teachers too often violate this law — and human decency. They instead try to bully children into pledging allegiance under God, as the case of Utah grade-schooler Joshua Nighthawk shows.

Joshua didn’t believe in God. He didn’t believe that the United States provides liberty and justice for all. And he didn’t want to pledge, and lie. But, despite the code’s provisions, Joshua’s teacher allegedly responded, Trump-like: “If you don’t love America, move to France.” Because, you know: Nothing quite says “freedom” like forcing kids to say what they don’t believe.

Joshua and his mom fought back. And won. But kids shouldn’t have to fight against such coercion to begin with.

Prominent, unavoidable pronouncements of “In God We Trust” represent too much the same type of indoctrination. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt whines that keeping God and public education separate is an attempt to “make it difficult to acknowledge religious belief in America.” Not so. Leavitt remains free to preach in America that black skin is a curse from God. He remains free to preach that willfully letting school children be sexually abused and killed is the right thing for his trusted, all-powerful, perfect God to do. You can teach that at home. And in seminary, too.

But when it comes to teaching kids in public schools to trust in God? That is not the right place.

Gregory Clark

Gregory A. Clark is a local educator who served as an informal mediator between Joshua Nighthawk’s family and school.