Suzie Glassman

(Colorado Newsline) An El Paso County school board voted 3-2 this week to approve a resolution encouraging its schools to display the national motto “In God We Trust” in classrooms, along with other historical displays depicting the founding and heritage of America.

School District 49 covers northeast Colorado Springs and the unincorporated community of Falcon, and ranks as the 11th largest in the state with more than 26,000 students.

Board Vice President Jamilynn D’Avola first advanced the resolution during a board meeting last month. The measure initially required teachers to display “In God We Trust” in every classroom, but modified the language to “encourage” rather than mandate the displays, mirroring a resolution passed by the Colorado State Board of Education in 2000.

The three members who voted in favor of the resolution — D’Avola, Lori Thompson and Deb Schmidt — argued the motto is part of the nation’s history, noting that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law that made “In God We Trust” the national motto, created a national day of prayer and added “under God” to the pledge of allegiance. D’Avola also referenced the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs and how they were a central factor in drafting the principles upon which the U.S. is based.

Supporters of the resolution maintain that displaying the motto isn’t a call to become a Christian. Marty Jensen, a resident who spoke during a public comment period, said, “Putting up the motto isn’t forcing anyone to change their views. It’s an opportunity to share the love of God.”

Other speakers argued the motto is part of our nation’s history and should be included in historical displays alongside the Constitution and the American flag.

The opposition argued that the U.S. Constitution calls for the separation of church and state and that such a display would alienate students who don’t believe in God.

During public comment, Cary Carr, who described herself as a Christian, said, “I’m very concerned about and opposed to the resolution on tonight’s agenda proposing to encourage the display of this motto in our schools. I see nothing of benefit for our schools, and I see the harm that could occur.

“My faith does not lead me to believe that I need God placed on the walls in order to show my faith,” Carr added.

Board secretary Marie Lavere-Wright, who voted against the measure, said that while she is a practicing Christian, such religious displays have implications for Indigenous children attending the district’s schools.

“When they come and see a sign and part of their family history was the forced acceptance of the predominant faith, and they were removed from their family for their entire childhood or the majority of it and were forbidden from speaking their language and studying their culture that’s significant,” Lavere-Wright said. “A child should not have to look at that sign in their classroom when we’re asking them to learn academics. We have to think about everyone’s experience and everyone’s belief system, not just our own.”

Board President Lori Thompson, who had the final say on the matter before calling for a vote, said she always errs on the side of free speech and that she was never in favor of requiring schools or teachers to display the motto.

School administrators and teachers will now have the option to display the motto. D’Avola also made it clear she intends to hang an “In God We Trust” poster behind the board’s dais.

Ties to Christian nationalism

Critics say policies like the one the District 49 board adopted fall short of ensuring schools are “inclusive and open to students of all religions and none.”

“Displaying an inherently religious message like ‘In God We Trust’ in public schools is divisive and tells students their public school district — a government institution — favors certain religions over others and over nonreligion,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “In America, every child must feel equally welcome in their own classroom, regardless of their or their family’s religious beliefs.”

Laser also noted that the drive to display “In God We Trust” in public schools was lifted right out of the playbook of Christian nationalism, a movement that seeks to erode the separation of church and state. Such policies are among those endorsed by Project Blitz, a coalition of more than 40 right-wing Christian organizations that circulates model legislation and talking points to state and local officials across the country.

Lawmakers have mandated “In God We Trust” displays in public schools in at least seven states, according to Blitz Watch, a project backed by civil rights organizations including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Interfaith Alliance. Five of those laws have been enacted since 2018.

“Bills mandating these displays are easy to pass, and as such, they are the low-hanging fruit acquired first,” Blitz Watch says on its website. “Once these bills become law, Project Blitz intends to build on that momentum to unleash even more harmful attacks on the freedom of religion.”