'In God We Trust' battle brews'

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'In God We Trust' battle brews'

Legal fight expected to follow approval of motto for Colorado schools


By Charlie Brennan / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

BOULDER, Colo. – Clair Orr says he wanted to honor American history,
not make it.

But the plain-spoken rancher from the Colorado plains northeast of Denver may have put
the state's board of education on a collision course with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Orr, 47, the chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, proposed a resolution
passed by the panel Thursday encouraging public schools to post the national motto
"In God We Trust" in their buildings.

The measure passed by a vote of 5-1, with one member absent.

Mr. Orr says he's already heard rumblings that the constitutionality of the nonbinding
resolution could be challenged in court.

He is not afraid of a legal battle.

"If that's what they want, then come on, let's go to town," said Mr. Orr, who lives in
Kersey, population 1,500. "I'm not going to bow down to fear tactics. If somebody
wants to sue, they've got the right to do that in this country."

Mr. Orr said he proposed schools be urged to post "In God We Trust" without
giving a second thought or even a first thought to the Supreme
Court ruling last month striking down attempts by a Texas high school to have
an elected student lead a prayer before football games. That ruling was widely
regarded as the high court's clear and emphatic affirmation of the church-state
separation doctrine.

"I didn't even consider it at all," Mr. Orr said of the ruling in the Santa Fe Public
School District case. "We're not praying in school here. This motto is a symbol,
like the flag flying on the flagpole."

There are many who disagree with him.

Sue Armstrong, executive director of the Colorado ACLU in Denver, says the
board's measure is unconstitutional. She's convinced it is a clear breach of the
First Amendment's mandated separation between church and state.

"We have taken every opportunity possible to argue that," Ms. Armstrong said.

She pointed out that the resolution encourages "the appropriate display in schools
and other public buildings" of the national motto - without defining "appropriate

Because of that, she said, "the ACLU can determine what an 'appropriate display'
might be, and in fact an "appropriate display' might be that it is not displayed,

As for a legal challenge, Ms. Armstrong said the ACLU will wait to see if any of
Colorado's 176 public school districts follow the recommendation.

So far, there is no indication that any plan to do so. But that doesn't mute the
vociferous tone or the breadth of resistance to the board's action.

The opposition includes the Mountain States Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation

"Posting these words in our public schools conveys a religious message and
constitutes an endorsement by the government, and that's unconstitutional,"
said Evan Zuckerman, the group's assistant director.

"To post a motto that mentions God in our public schools is also very insensitive.
Our public schools are open to children of all faiths and no faiths. The diversity
is plentiful. When you have an official statement of religion in the schools,
it's inappropriate, it's unconstitutional and it's very insensitive."

Ms. Zuckerman said she wonders about the intent of the recommendation, given recent
Supreme Court rulings. "It seems like it would be an attempted circumvention of those

Mr. Orr, who raises wheat and cattle and also works as a real estate broker, said he
pursued his mission influenced, in part, by the April 20, 1999, tragedy at Columbine
High School, where two teenagers slaughtered 12 fellow students and a teacher
before turning guns on themselves.

"I'm deeply troubled when we have kids shooting kids and they don't feel safe in
our schools," Mr. Orr said. "That's a breakdown of our moral character.

"It's almost like we have religious oppression anymore in our schools. We say you
can't have God, period, in our schools. But, when we have a Columbine, the first
thing everybody says is, 'Pray for them.' You know, bring God out of the closet,
but only in the bad times."

John DeStefano, school board president for the Jefferson County School District,
which includes Columbine, thinks the state board's action was, in part, a response
to the shooting though a woefully misguided response.

"I think there are many things that can be done to ensure safety in schools that
would have a much greater effect than something like this," he said, citing tools
such as early intervention with problem students and mentor counseling.

"I fail to see how doing this is going to prevent, in any way, something like
Columbine. I think that's a far stretch."

He added that, though his board had not addressed Thursday's state board action, in
his opinion "this really flies in the face of the Constitution, and it flies in
the face of the concept of church and state."

Mr. DeStefano described himself as "a strong Christian," but said: "I think that
it is dangerous in the types of precedents it might be setting. I'm very concerned
when anybody sits and tries to use the classroom as a place for religious

But Mr. Orr pleads not guilty to the charge. He saw his proposal as a way to highlight
and honor our country's history.

"It's our national motto," he protested. "This [past week] was the first Independence
Day of the new millennium – 224 years of freedom."

Also, he said, "It represents our religious heritage. It is very important that we
don't hide the truth from our youth. We need to tell the truth of our heritage. We
do have a religious heritage, and our children need to know what made us strong."

He was applauded by Josh Weidmann, an effusive 18-year-old from Littleton, who is a
leader of a group called Revival Generation, credited with helping to create prayer
groups and Bible clubs at high schools across the nation.

"When I saw it on TV, I was, like, 'Wow, that's awesome,'" said Mr. Weidmann, who
graduated this year from Arapahoe High School, a cross-town rival to Columbine.
"I was totally stoked about it, that the board of education would recommend
something like that."

He sees no Constitutional conflict.

"I really think that doesn't have anything to do with it," he said. "'In God We Trust' is
what America was founded on. It's on our dollar bills."

The lone voice of dissent in the board's vote was Gully Stanford, who represents
Denver's congressional district on the panel. He is its sole Democrat.

"This will send a chilling message to those who are most concerned about religious
agendas in our schools," he said. "That distresses me. We are sending a message
to some people in this state that they are outsiders, since their particular religions
or lack of religious faith are essentially rejected.

"It is not inclusive, in an increasingly pluralistic society. A Judeo-Christian
proclamation in the hallways of our schools sends, I think, a divisive message."

Mr. Stanford was one of several people to point out that the board's action comes not
long after a Republican member of the Colorado legislature, John Andrews, proposed
then withdrew for lack of support – a post-Columbine bill calling for the Ten
Commandments to be posted in Colorado public schools.

"I would not be surprised if some of the more conservative states' boards tried to
follow suit" with the In God We Trust idea, said Mr. Stanford. "I really believe that
this ties into a national agenda, which is a religious agenda."

Jane Urschel, associate executive director for the Colorado Association of School
Boards, said she has heard nothing to indicate that any of the state's public school
districts are poised to post the four little words.

"This has really taken the districts by surprise," Ms. Urschel said. "It puts them
in a tough position, particularly with the Supreme Court's recent findings. ...
There are so many things that we need to be addressing that would seem to be more

Mr. Orr, who lit this legal brushfire, feels he has no further role in the debate.

"Basically, from today forward, we've turned it over to the people," he said. "They can
throw it in the trashcan. They can do whatever they want with it. We're saying, 'This
is what we think is important. Now, we wash our hands of this, and you take it.'"

Charlie Brennan is a free-lance writer based on Boulder, Colo.

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Word Study from Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary
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Word Study from  Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary

Word Study from Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary

Word Study from Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary

Word Study from Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary

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GOD. From the Saxon god, good. The source of all good; the supreme being.

1. Every man is presumed to believe in God, and he who opposes a witness on
the ground of his unbelief is bound to prove it. 3 Bouv. Inst. u. 3180.

2. Blasphemy against the Almighty, by denying his being or providence,
was an offence punishable at common law by fine and imprisonment, or other
infamous corporal punishment. 4 Bl. Corn. 60; 1 East, P. C. 3; 1 Russ.
on Crimes, 217. This offence his been enlarged in Pennsylvania, and perhaps
most of the states, by statutory provision. Vide Christianity;
Blasphemy; 11 Serg. & Rawle, 394.

3. By article 1, of amendments to the Constitution of the United States,
it is provided that "Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the United States,
therefore, every one is allowed to worship God according to the dictates of
his own conscience.


     Accusare nemo debet se, nisi coram Deo. No one ought to accuse himself,
     unless before God. Hard. 139.

     Actus Dei nemini facit injuriam. The act of God does no injury; that is,
     no one is responsible for inevitable accidents. 2  Blacks. Com. 122.
     See Act of God.

     Haeredem Deus facit, non homo. God and not man, make the heir.

     Judici satis paena est quod Deum habet ultorem. It is punishment enough
     for a judge that he is responsible to God. 1 Leon. 295.

     Jurare est Deum in testum vocare, et est actus divini cultus. To swear is
     to call God to witness, and is an act of religion. 3 Co. Inst. 165. Vide
     3 Bouv. Inst. n. 3180, note; 1 Benth. Rat. of Jud. Ev. 376, 371, note.

     Solus Deus haeredem facit. God alone makes the heir.
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