Saturday, March 6, 2004

Proposal revives motto debate

Schools would post messages about God

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - A proposal requiring all Ohio schools to post the state and federal mottos has reignited a debate over church-state separation.

Every classroom, auditorium and cafeteria would display the mottos "With God, All Things are Possible" and "In God we Trust" in separate frames measuring at least 11-by-14 inches.

"What we want to do is make sure we promote the state and national mottos in the classroom," said Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, the bill's sponsor.

"Both of the mottos have been upheld as constitutional and reflect a part of our tradition and historical perspective."

The bill would prominently display the word "God" inside Ohio schools roughly 200,000 times - a situation that irritates those who advocate for wide separation on church-state issues.

"Clearly, this is a backdoor effort to try to get religion into the public schools," said Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They aren't trying to teach children about civics. They're trying to promote religion in schools, and that's certainly not appropriate."

If the bill is approved as written, Ohio would join South Carolina and Mississippi in requiring the national motto be displayed in every classroom, according to the American Family Association.

The organization, which sells 11-by-14 motto posters at a cost of three for $10, is pushing to get "In God We Trust" into every classroom.

Mississippi lawmakers did not provide funding for their 2001 motto requirement, instead leaving it up to private citizens to raise money for the posters. Faber also would expect local veterans groups and churches to pick up the tab in Ohio.

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission estimates it will cost about $3 million to place two framed wall hangings in each of the state's 100,000 classrooms. That estimate assumes schools will print their own posters for a small cost.

Faber dismisses concerns that the bill would force a particular religion on students.

"As long as people understand we're not saying, 'My religion's right and your religion's wrong' or that we're going to preach the scripture," he said. "All we're saying is the state has a motto and the motto is based in a historical context."

Faber said more problems developed in schools when people started forcing references to God out.

"It's amazing to me that people say we don't want God in the classroom, yet my view is God comes into the classroom every morning when the children come in," he said.

Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said that just because courts have ruled the mottos constitutional for general purposes doesn't mean they'll allow them to saturate public schools.

And this is not simply hanging up the national motto in a school hallway, she said.

"It feels much different when you're walking through an elementary school seeing these two religious-based sayings in every classroom," she said.

Two states - Utah and Virginia - have passed laws requiring the national motto be displayed in schools, but not in each classroom, according to the Family Association.

Ten states have passed laws permitting schools to post the national motto, but not requiring it.

The idea of posting the mottos didn't sit well with some Greater Cincinnati public school superintendents.

Scott Inskeep, superintendent of Reading schools, said school systems already have enough challenges.

This week voters overwhelmingly rejected his district's operating levy and Reading schools now face more than $500,000 in personnel and program cuts.

Inskeep described the proposed law, and what he believes will be the rancor over it, as like "throwing an anchor to a drowning man."

"I'm not against religion, but the public schools are always put into a position of having to mediate legislative directives and it doesn't seem fair," said Inskeep.

Madeira Superintendent Stephen Kramer asked the same question.

"If I had a vote, I wouldn't vote for it,'' he said. "There are so many other things that need to happen in public schools."

James Smith, superintendent of Clermont County's Bethel-Tate schools, said lawmakers have more important business.

"I would be much more in favor of legislators addressing Ohio's school funding mess," said Smith.

Said Bill Sears, superintendent of Warren County's Lebanon: "I believe public school districts were created to educate children, but oftentimes we are thrown into political fights and issues that take away from the time we can give to kids."

Enquirer reporter Michael D. Clark contributed.

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