WASHINGTON — The House took a break from battles over economic policy and returned to a clash from the culture war.
With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Republican-led chamber voted Tuesday to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as the official motto of the United States and encourage the motto's display in all public schools and buildings.
The move inevitably reopened a debate over separation of church and state — the sort of social issue that has taken a backseat this year to the debt ceiling, budget deficit and the flagging economy. The resolution drew praise from Christian conservatives who see an effort to withdraw references to God from the public sphere.
"Whereas if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured," read the resolution, introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va.
Critics saw the vote as unnecessary, more of an attempt to gin up support from the GOP base.
"I think we know by now that this Congress likes God. Can we move on?" said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The motto has been official since 1956, but that hasn't stopped lawmakers from underlining it on occasion. In 2002, in response to a court ruling, the Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a bill reaffirming the motto and a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 2006, the Senate reaffirmed the motto on its 50th anniversary of officialdom. In 2009, the lawmakers voted to get the words etched on the new Capitol visitors center.
Forbes argued this resolution was needed. He cited a speech President Barack Obama gave last year in which he said, "Our motto is, 'E pluribus unum.' " The phrase — Latin for "out of many, one" — is a motto on the Great Seal of the United States and the presidential seal, but it's not the official motto.
While Forbes' resolution passed easily, 396-9, some Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee argued that it was a distraction from more important issues.
Rather than focusing on high unemployment, Republicans were pushing a "measure that has no force of law, only reaffirms existing law, and further injects the hand of government into the private religious lives of the American people," the Democrats wrote.
Forbes argued the trying times made the moment just right.
"As our nation faces challenging times, it is appropriate for members of Congress and our nation — like our predecessors — to firmly declare our trust in God, believing that it will sustain us for generations to come," he said.