That’s the central question behind a debate that has firmly placed the Carter County Schools district between the state of Tennessee and a federal injunction.
The Tennessee General Assembly this year voted to require the state’s public school districts to post the nation’s official motto, “In God We Trust,” in every school. Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower adopted the phrase as the motto in 1956 as a replacement or alternative to the unofficial motto of E pluribus unum, which was adopted when the Great Seal of the United States was created and adopted in 1782.
As Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson reported in Friday’s edition, Carter County is the only county in Tennessee affected by a permanent federal court injunction “perpetually enjoining, restraining and prohibiting” the school system “from allowing, approving, or encouraging religious activities in the public schools for Carter County Schools during public school hours.”
The 1983 injunction resulted from the U.S. Supreme Court’s long-standing rulings that state-sponsored religious indoctrination violates a student’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
But courts already allow schools some latitude regarding religion, including the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and musical performances in Christmas season, long as a performance is educational and not devotional or proselytizing.
Individual students are allowed to pray on their own as long as it not disruptive or interfere with classroom instruction and school officials do not prompt or require it. Students have the right to participate in faith-based clubs, such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in after-school meetings
Both the motto itself, which appears on U.S. currency, and the Pledge’s use in public schools have survived constitutional challenges as recently as 2015. The Pledge is permissible as long as participation is voluntary, not compulsory.
So there’s plenty of “God” happening in public schools. Yet here sits Carter County, waiting for a firm legal opinion on whether following the new state law would violate the federal court order. The school board has scheduled a legal workshop for Thursday to discuss the matter.
Here’s your chance to sound off. Should local public schools post ‘In God We Trust’? Would it violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment?
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