It is very hard for local governments to resist religious pandering, especially when it is combined with patriotic pandering. All it takes is for one elected official to propose something like putting up the Ten Commandments or starting meetings with a prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance (with the words ‘under god’ added of course) and this puts other members in a bind. Even if they think the idea is stupid, offensive, or even unconstitutional, few want to speak out against it for fear of being labeled anti-religious or unpatriotic. This is why most such practices end up having to be litigated, wasting everyone’s time and money.
So I was heartened to see that the Allegheny County Council rejected a proposal that would post the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in its chambers.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had threatened to veto the measure, which he called “a movement by the right-wing evangelical Christians across the country basically to impose Christianity” in public buildings.
Fitzgerald is a Democrat, as are the eight council members who opposed the display, which would also have included Pennsylvania’s state motto “Virtue, Liberty and Independence” and another U.S. motto, “E Pluribus Unum.”
The vote was 8-6 with all five Republicans voting in favor (of course) and joined by one Democrat.
Allegheny County may have been particularly sensitive to this issue because it was involved in a major First Amendment case COUNTY OF ALLEGHENY V. ACLU in 1989 involving the display of a crèche and menorah in the county courthouse at Christmas. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the crèche was unconstitutional, and that the constitution requires the government to be secular. It denied that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday could be interpreted as favoring non-Christians over Christians.