Some Americans are up in arms about a recent mistake made at the U.S. Mint. Fifty thousand George Washington dollar coins have been struck without the inscription: "In God We Trust." Many believe that a public outcry after such an egregious error is only natural, but why? This so-called gaffe offers a rare glimpse of what currency would look like if the First Amendment prohibition against government established religion was taken seriously.
And this error provides a welcome contrast to the efforts of the 112th Congress, whose latest jab at the Constitution involves proposing the inscription "In God We Trust" on every federal building and in every public school. Representative Randy Forbes' House Concurrent Resolution 13 has been forwarded from the Judiciary Committee to the House floor for a full vote.
Estimates for placing these signs on the thousands of public buildings nationwide range as high as $90 million dollars, but spending even a single tax dollar would be too much. The endorsement of "In God We Trust" as the official motto of this nation was the result of antiquated Cold War ideology. Like the inclusion of the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, it was part of the movement to distinguish ourselves from the dreaded Soviet atheists.
It's not enough that the First Amendment-offending phrase already appears on our currency and is listed as our national motto. Now, in-your-face religious conservatives want the phrase chiseled in front of us at court, at work and in our kids' schools. How much further will this go?
There are already Bible verse plaques on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps they will try to have religious words inscribed along the base of Old Faithful, or carved into the trunks of trees in the Redwood forest. Earlier this year, coded biblical references were discovered on thousands of high-power military rifle sights -- the inscriptions were scratched off after complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. Logos for military units are still being seen on bibles distributed in conflict areas. Perhaps they'll next insist we etch "In God We Trust" on to the belt buckle of every American in uniform.
Though we reside in an age of anti-intellectualism, where people like George W. Bush can be elected President and Latin is little more than a dead language, we were better off with our original motto "E Pluribus Unum," or "Out of many, one." Adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782, this affirmation still reminds us what made this country truly revolutionary: a shared recognition of the humanity of all, regardless of national origin or religion. And since the Civil War we've expanded that unity to help overcome boundaries of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
We need to revisit this focus on unity and reemphasize our first freedom. This past December, the legislators of the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a letter to President Obama condemning his even mentioning "E Pluribus Unum" in a speech, and asking him to issue a correction emphasizing God. Since their swearing-in, many freshmen members of the 112th Congress are consistently pushing a religiously motivated agenda, from attempting to defund Planned Parenthood to investigating the patriotism of American Muslims. This federally funded God graffiti would be the latest in a string of faith-based measures.
It appears that many, including some of our nation's top leadership, believe that our First Amendment protection is only a freedom to be a Christian, when it really guarantees us freedom of and from religion. Thoughtful Americans of all backgrounds -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, believers and nonbelievers alike -- can look at this issue and reasonably conclude that the effort to officially affirm a belief in God is an insult to the separation of church and state, and to America's culture of tolerance. The measure is emblematic of the disrespect overzealous religious conservatives have for anyone who doesn't adhere to their narrow definition of who an "American" is supposed to be. More alarmingly, it distracts from the real problems our nation faces, from our mounting debt to our involvement in multiple overseas conflicts to our struggling economy. With so much influence at their disposal, the 112th Congress chooses to focus on religious discrimination.
For those who feel this measure is symbolic, consider some of its possible consequences when posted on public school buildings. More than ever before, young people don't adhere to a particular faith. According to a poll last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of those born after 1981 are without religion. Signs in public schools that exclude the largest minority group in our country will only offer a negative impact. At a time when we're recognizing the significance of bullying and classroom discrimination, why fuel the fire by giving bullies a talking point? Whether its teaching religion disguised as science in the classroom or promoting a government establishment of Christianity, the relentless attempts at religious indoctrination of our children must be prevented in our public schools, not painted on them.
Follow Roy Speckhardt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/royspeckhardt