States

Miss. Requires Schools To Post ‘In God We Trust’ Motto

By Alan Richard — April 04, 2001 4 min read
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No state but Mississippi has passed a law such as this: All public schools shall post “In God We Trust” in every classroom, auditorium, and cafeteria.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove

“Our nation was founded as a godly nation, and we put it on our money,” Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, said as he signed the bill into law March 23.

Whether the law—requiring the national motto to be displayed in a frame and no smaller than 11-by-14 inches—actually will take hold remains to be seen. No legal challenge had been filed as of last week, but the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups were discussing whether to mount one.

“This is the first state that has actually done what many legislatures have threatened to do,” said Barry W. Lynn, a minister and the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington.

“Unlike ‘In God We Trust’ on coins, ... this is taking a kind of captive audience of schoolchildren and compelling them to read a religious doctrine in school,” he contended.

A similar bill easily passed the Virginia House of Delegates this year, but died in the state Senate. Colorado’s state school board passed a resolution last year urging legislators to require that schools post the motto, but the legislature has not acted.

Leaders in Mississippi took the same approach that Colorado board members did in justifying their measure, noting that federal courts have upheld the inclusion of the motto on the nation’s paper money and coins.

State Superintendent of Education Richard Thompson told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss., that “there appears to be some precedent that allows this to stand.”

Mr. Thompson’s assistant, Steve Williams, said last week that he had bigger fish to fry than the motto law, as lawmakers moved to wrap up their deliberations on the state budget. “We see no value in trying to step into that debate,” Mr. Williams said, noting that the measure had been already enacted and that the sentiments expressed in the motto were “worthy things.”

Impact on Schools

Joyce McNair, a superintendent in the remote Mississippi Delta flatlands, where farms still cover much of the landscape, wasn’t worrying about constitutional questions last week when she contemplated carrying out the “In God We Trust” mandate. She wondered instead how she’d pay for a slew of picture frames and posters, as the new law demands.

“Where do I get the money to do this?” said Ms. McNair, the leader of the 2,300-student Humphreys County district, which includes the town of Midnight.

In Jackson, the state capital and the largest school system, with 32,000 students, Superintendent Jayne B. Sargent pledged compliance. “We will follow the law, unless we see that the law is challenged and stricken,” she said through spokeswoman Lucy Hansford.

The law itself presents some logistical challenges. “We’re still trying to figure out how many classrooms we have,” joked Ms. Hansford, a district spokeswoman.

Schools may get help from the owner of a print shop in Pearl, Miss., the town outside Jackson where a 16-year- old gunman killed his mother in 1997 before proceeding to the local high school, where he killed two people and injured seven.

Ken Briggs, who owns Capitol City Labels, said his six employees would print up to 40,000 “In God We Trust” posters and make them available to schools for free.

The offer is a tribute to good morals and to his three daughters in public schools, he said, recalling an evening last week when a story about his plans made the local TV news. His daughters gathered around him for a hug and told him how proud they were.

“I feel so strongly about having some kind of moral base. I know in my heart there is a God; there’s no question to me,” Mr. Briggs said. Still, he added, “I’m not a religious fanatic by any means.”

Mississippi’s new mandate began as a bill allowing schools to require that students observe a moment of silence each day. The bill was amended in the Senate to include the “In God We Trust” provision as well. Mississippi’s adoption of the moment-of-silence measure comes as a similar law in Virginia is being challenged in court.

Mississippi Rep. Joey Fillingane was the Republican lawmaker who wrote the original bill, which included only the moment of silence. He noted that no one voted against the original bill in the House of Representatives, and few opposed the later version that included the motto.

“I don’t think we’re treading on any constitutional waters here,” he said.

Meanwhile, another school-related bill signed by Gov. Musgrove creates a “three strikes” law for schools. If a student is disruptive three times during a school year, he or she will be expelled automatically, under the measure. The governor and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, also a Democrat, backed the bill, but the Black Legislative Caucus and others have expressed concerns.

Mississippi’s attention also is focused on a statewide referendum this month, when voters will decide whether to replace the state flag with a version that includes no Confederate battle-flag symbols. (“What’s In A Flag?,” State Journal, Oct. 11, 2000.)

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Miss. Requires Schools To Post ‘In God We Trust’ Motto

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