ROCKINGHAM — The words “In God We Trust” — in eight-inch tall cast-aluminum lettering — was added to the main entrance of the Richmond County Judicial Center Tuesday evening.
Richmond joins 51 other counties in North Carolina that have now added more than 250 of the displays on government buildings, as well as decals on the sides of law enforcement and fire department vehicles.
Commissioners last August approved plans to display the phrase over five government buildings: the judicial center, historical courthouse, administration building, health department and social services.
“I’m glad that Richmond County wants people to know that our government honors God,” said Commissioner Thad Ussery, a vocal advocate for the signs since the idea was first presented to the board. “It’s on our money, it ought to be on our buildings.”
The trend began with a spark in 2002 when Rick Lanier, then a county commissioner for Davidson County, on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks asked his board to consider displaying “In God We Trust” on the county building “with a desire to promote patriotism.” The board approved, and Lanier formed the United States Motto Action Committee that December to ensure that the display stayed there.
Each display costs roughly $2,500, though funding is entirely private — a measure taken to avoid violating the First Amendment, which prevents the government establishing a religion. However, this was not enough to prevent a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds.
The ACLU moved swiftly to file a lawsuit in June 2003, arguing that board members and the public emphasized the religious nature of the words “In God We Trust” as justification for displaying them on government buildings, in one instance even saying that to vote against the move was a “vote against God,” according to court documents.
A federal court considered the ACLU’s claim based on three criteria from legal precedent: whether there was a secular purpose behind the installation of the signage, whether the signage’s primary effect was one that neither advanced nor inhibited religion, and whether the statute fostered an “excessive government entanglement with religion.”
The court ruled that the phrase was not purely a statement of religious allegiance, citing prior rulings which characterized the phrase as a “patriotic and ceremonial motto” with “no theological or ritualistic impact.” The phrase was first included on United States coins in 1864 as a result of increased religious sentiments during the Civil War and later named the national motto in 1956, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury website.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court but was dismissed, affirming the lower court ruling.
“Government buildings and government employees should welcome and serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their religious view,” said Mike Meno, communications director for the North Carolina ACLU. “These types of displays can be very divisive and they send a message that the government favors the beliefs of some over others.
“People who practice a different religion or no religion at all should not be made to feel like outsiders,” he added.
Despite the victory, the battle dragged on through 2005 which slowed USMAC’s momentum, Lanier said. Only a handful of governing bodies had adopted the displays by 2007, but there has been an explosion of support in the last three years. Lanier attributes part of that to his retirement, which has allowed him to dedicate more time, but also to what he calls an “awakening” among Christians across the country.
“We had a very liberal climate out there but we were having a lot of good success,” Lanier said. “We were hearing from county and government leaders that they were tired of the liberal agenda trying to remove their Godly heritage, some referred to it as being shoved down their throats.
“We felt we needed to push back.”
Lanier said that he has faced virually zero pushback from county commissioners or from any legal entities since the court’s ruling in 2005, an observation shared by Ussery in regards to Richmond County. Lanier cited only one letter — sent to the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation — challenging the county’s decision to put “In God We Trust” decals on the sides of their cars.
The old and new courthouses are the only Richmond County projects to have been funded. The other three buildings are expected to have sufficient funding by the end of the year, Lanier said.
The next move for his committee, Lanier said, is to pitch the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners. Most of the committee’s victories have come from counties with medium to low populations. They have yet to pitch the idea to Wake or Mecklenburg counties.
“We just feel like we’re better served by going to the medium-sized counties to begin with and then if the larger counties want to come on board — we don’t twist anybody’s arm,” Lanier said.
Ussery said he expects more counties to join Richmond.
“It would suite me if it was on all the buildings but we don’t own all the buildings,” Ussery said. “People have a right to put what they want on their buildings.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674.