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Freedom from religious coercion

IN THE Virginia General Assembly, constitutionality has just flown out the window. In an attempt to levy their own religious beliefs on Virginians during the past weeks, many of the Commonwealth's lawmakers have forgotten the freedoms a non-secular state guarantees to its residents.

On Feb. 12, the Virginia Senate followed in the footsteps of the House by passing a bill that would require all public schools in Virginia to post the United States motto "In God We Trust" in a prominent place. With both chambers' approval, the bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Mark R. Warner to be signed into law.

Warner has expressed that he will not sign the bill without complete faith that it is constitutional, but even a cursory examination of the proposal shows that it is not. Warner should not sign this bill into law, setting a precedent for his administration of not folding to conservative ploys to bring Christianity or any other religion into public schools against the tenets set forth by the Constitution.

Religion does not belong in public schools - period. The Constitution ensures that no one religion will be endorsed or criticized by the state. It is the right of every American to have their children educated in religious school, if that type of education is important. Parents who send their children to public schools send them there to receive a traditional education in reading, writing and arithmetic - not in religion.

The motto, while affirmed by Congress, flies in the face of the Constitution. It mentions God and, in doing this, puts the weight of the government behind one religion. The Federal 5th, 9th and 10th Circuit Courts ruled in 1996 that the motto "does not advance religion, it advances the national motto," but no Supreme Court ruling has been made on this issue at present time. The Court refused to hear a 1996 case in which the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to remove the motto from U.S. currency because evidence showed that many Americans thought the phrase was religious.

The government has no business affirming that the nation should trust in one God over another. A valid point is that the motto doesn't belong anywhere in our country, but it most certainly does not belong in public schools. By posting the motto "In God We Trust," Virginia is telling each child who reads it in his or her classroom that the United States endorses organized religion or a belief in God. The use of the word "we" in the statement implies that all Americans should trust in God even though all have the freedom to trust in anything they want or even nothing at all. For some Americans, that motto would read "In Allah We Trust" or "In Atheism We Trust." Since we can't possibly represent all beliefs, we must represent none.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Nick Rerras (R-Norfolk), contends that the statement has a long history in America and represents our culture - that is, if Rerras thinks the culture of 1864 when the motto was first used by the Treasury is representative of today. The truth is that it is not.

The motto first was used in 1864 during the Civil War to rally support for the federal government. No doubt the motto was effective at that time, but the social climate of the late 19th century is a far cry from that of today. The overwhelming majority of the country was Christian and, even though the motto may have been unconstitutional then, there wasn't a strong contingent to be offended by it. Today in the United States we have a strong minority of religions that deserve to have the education of their children protected from Christian influence.

In addition, after it had died out, Congress placed the motto back into use in 1956. This reaffirmation appears like a vote in favor of supporting the motto's use today, but the climate in which it was reapproved is not one America wants to revisit. The 50s were a time of isolationism, a time when many Americans were not tolerant of different religious groups. The Congress that approved the motto in 1956 probably was mostly white and mostly Christian. The sample of Americans who endorsed the motto in 1956 are not representative of Americans today. Warner should not base his decision on this proposal on history that can't be compared to today.

Rerras' main reason for displaying the "In God We Trust" motto in public schools, though, is to provide an inspirational saying for Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and to instill the patriotism and morality that he believes is missing from Virginia public schools.

Americans do need something to uplift them after the Sept. 11 attacks, but that does not necessarily mean it should be God for everyone. The General Assembly should not feel that they need to use God to encourage patriotism.

Americans need to trust in each other and our country during these times. Lawmakers should trust Virginians to find hope and faith in their own way and impart that to their children in a manner they see fit. Christianity is not the only way to find solace after the horrific acts of Sept. 11, and the General Assembly insults every American of a different religion who lost someone that day by making that assumption.

Virginians and their governor must see through the weak arguments some legislators are making in favor of this bill. Religious freedom and the fair education of all children in Virginia are at stake. Show the commitment of your administration to the Constitution, Warner. Don't sign this bill.

(Erin Perucci's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at eperucci@cavalierdaily.com.)

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