Returning Virginia students greeted by 'In God We Trust'
By The Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. For the third consecutive year, students returning to public school are being exposed to a new state initiative that critics say crosses the line between church-state separation.
In 2000, it was the mandatory minute of silence at the beginning of the school day. A year ago, it was the required daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase "one nation under God ..."
This year, it's posters reminding students of the national motto: "In God We Trust."
The signs were displayed in a prominent location, as required by law, as public schools reopened in most of Virginia's largest school districts on Sept. 3. Some districts started the new school year last month.
The 2002 General Assembly passed legislation requiring public school districts to post the national motto "in a conspicuous place in each of their schools for all students to read." The law says that under "In God We Trust," the signs must say, "The National Motto enacted by Congress in 1956."
Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, sponsor of the legislation, emphasized during the legislative debate that courts had upheld the government's printing of "In God We Trust" on coins and currency.
However, the state director of the American Civil Liberties Union said on Sept. 3 that he had received scores of letters and e-mails from students and parents upset about the signs.
"They don't want the state of Virginia interfering with their right to educate their children on religious matters," he said.
Many of the correspondents have asked if the ACLU plans to take legal action. Willis said the ACLU would watch two developments before deciding: the outcome of a Pledge of Allegiance court case in California and student reaction to the signs.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco earlier this year ruled that the reference to God made reciting the pledge in public schools unconstitutional. The full appeals court has been asked to review the decision.
"If the ultimate ruling is that reciting the pledge is unconstitutional, then it is clearly unconstitutional to post 'In God We Trust.' If it goes the other way, it makes our case more difficult," Willis said.
Willis also wants to hear from parents about how their children react to the signs.
"If reasonable students are interpreting the poster as a religious message from the school to them, then there is the possibility of a legal challenge based on the effects of the law," he said.
Freedom Friday, another organization promoting church-state separation, has threatened to sue school districts that use posters provided by the conservative Family Policy Network. The Bedford-based group sent about 3,200 free "In God We Trust" posters to public schools across the state.
"There's a tremendous benefit here in the sense that the individual's accountability to a sovereign God is the beginning of civility toward your fellow man," said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network.
The Virginia Department of Education has heard few complaints about the posters but has answered several inquiries from school officials about complying with the law.
"We've advised them that they are free to post any sort of poster or sign or plaque that conforms with the language of the bill," department spokesman Charles Pyle said.
Jo Lynne DeMary, the state superintendent of public instruction, said last month that she was unsure what effect, if any, the signs would have. She said there was no evidence that reciting the pledge had improved student behavior, but added she did believe the minute of silence had had "a calming effect."
Willis said that unlike the pledge and the minute of silence, the posters don't require any specific action by students and therefore might get less notice.
Students are split in their opinions of the new law.
Separation of church of state "separates us from the weirdo cultures," Frances Cabrera, a junior at Frank W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.
But Rachel Vorona, a senior at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, said the motto should offend no one. "I think it will be a source of comfort in the halls," she told the newspaper.
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