To Fight Shootings, Conservatives Are Bringing Religion Into Public Schools

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At least eight states passed laws this year requiring or permitting "In God We Trust" to be posted in public schools.

In the wake of February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida and several other states passed laws that permit or require the phrase “In God We Trust” to be posted in schools and other public buildings.

Florida state Rep. Kimberly Daniels (D) said she was inspired by God in a dream to bring the measure to the statehouse floor, the Washington Post reported.

God “is the light. And our schools need light in them like never before,” the Jacksonville Democrat said Feb. 21. “It is not a secret that we have some gun issues that need to be addressed. But the real thing that needs to be addressed are issues of the heart.”

Her proposal? Ensuring every Florida public school student is educated in a building where “In God We Trust” — the national and Florida state motto — is prominently posted. The bill passed and was signed into law.

Florida is one of seven states this year that passed laws requiring or permitting schools and other public buildings to post “In God We Trust.” Arkansas passed a similar measure in 2017, and Arizona this year allowed schools to post in English the state’s motto, which appears in Latin on the state seal: “God Enriches.”

In Arkansas, Republican state Rep. Jim Dotson — who sponsored the 2017 bill requiring “In God We Trust” to be posted in classrooms — said the national motto represents an integral part of what it means to be an American.

“Our history and our heritage is incredibly important, making sure that we as a nation remember our roots, remember where we came from,” Dotson said. “America is an exceptional nation. It’s the greatest nation in the history of this planet. Obviously, that success is attributed not just to individuals but probably some higher power than ourselves.”

Others would disagree entirely, and therein lies the ongoing debate in America’s public life over the issue of church and state.

At its core, the recent spate of laws is part of a long-running battle between two competing visions of the nation — a fight that started not long after Puritans, seeking refuge from religious persecution, arrived.

Americans have long disagreed about the role religion should play in public life. Some argue the acknowledgment of God is central to the nation’s identity. Others point to the founders’ efforts to eschew state-sponsored religion.

Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum in Washington, said these tensions often flare when the nation is in tumult.

“We’ve had really from the beginning of our country, even in the Colonial period, we’ve had a tension or really an argument about what kind of country we are,” Haynes said. “When we have a period of great anxiety about our nation and who we are and we have a great upheaval . . . this comes backs to the surface.”

As for school shootings?

Greg Pittman teaches honors U.S. history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the Florida school where 17 people died in the February shooting. Pittman said he is religious but resents the effort to bring religion into schools following tragedy.

“I do not see how placing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ is going to protect us from someone coming down the hallway and shooting students and teachers,” Pittman said.

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