God Motto Urged in Colo. Schools

Thursday, July 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) — Colorado's Board of Education voted Thursday to urge schools to post the words ``In God We Trust'' — the motto that has been on U.S. currency since the 19th century — in a provocative move that could lead to a court battle over the separation of church and state.

Board Chairman Clair Orr said he proposed the recommendation as way to celebrate national heritage, traditions and values. ``How long can we remain a free nation if our youth don't have civic virtue?'' he asked.

But critics accused the board of using a familiar and generally accepted phrase as a way to inject religion into the public schools.

The resolution calls for the State Board of Education to ``encourage the appropriate display in schools and other public buildings of the national motto `In God we trust.'''

It was adopted in a 5-1 vote after a meeting that began with a prayer.

Orr said the action would stand up to challenges because it is only a recommendation.

Congress approved ``In God We Trust'' for the nation's currency in 1864 following a request from a member of the clergy.

The Supreme Court has never decided a direct challenge to the motto. In the past three decades — most recently in 1996 — three federal appeals courts have allowed its use on coins and said it does not amount to a government endorsement of religion.

In 1970, a federal appeals court in San Francisco said it was ``quite obvious'' that the motto's use ``is of a patriotic or ceremonial character.''

Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said she will wait for schools to post ``In God We Trust'' before deciding whether to take any legal action against it.

``The arguments go back to religious motivation,'' Armstrong said. ``If we're talking about teaching a heritage to our students, than let's put it in our history lessons.''

Board member Gully Stanford, who cast the sole dissenting vote, said the measure is insensitive to the religious diversity of students.

``We are a much more pluralistic nation than we were at the founding of our nation,'' he said. ``In this pluralistic society, we must question the proclamation of one belief to the exclusion of another.''

Stanford said the timing of the resolution made it more contentious because religion in schools has become ``a front-burner issue'' recently.

The Colorado Legislature this year refused to require schools to post the Ten Commandments — an idea that has already been enacted or is under consideration in more than 10 states. And the U.S. Supreme Court last month banned prayers at high school football games.

A Washington-based watchdog group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the Colorado school board members urging them to reject the resolution.

``They seem to be trying to inject religion into public schools in an inappropriate way,'' said Joseph Conn, spokesman for the group. ``What they are doing is giving bad advice to local school districts. If they follow the advice they could easily end up in court.''

Some school officials reacted coolly to the resolution.

``I believe so strongly in the separation of church and state that I would be inclined to not support that at this point,'' said Jon DeStefano, president of the school board for Jefferson County Schools, the largest district in the state. ``I don't believe that public schools should be a forum for promoting religions.''