After a debate about whether it's promoting religion, the state House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to require North Carolina's public schools to display in a prominent place the words "In God We Trust."
Supporters of House Bill 965, which passed 94-15, said that the legislation would promote the nation's history and identity because "In God We Trust" is the national motto. They denied that the bill was an attempt to promote religion in general or Christianity in particular.
"I understand that any time the name of God is mentioned it’s going to be divisive," said Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Rockingham County and one of the bill's primary sponsors. "But I would just remind us that this is the national motto of the United States."
But critics said the bill sends the message that the state is backing one religion over another because most people will assume it's referring to Christianity.
“I really do believe that it is in our best interests for our nation for us not to try to promote the triune God through government," said Rep. Verla Insko, a Democrat from Orange County, referring to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The bill would require the sign with the message to also include the Latin and English translations of the state motto of "To be rather than to seem."
All the Republicans voted for the bill while it split Democrats. The bill now goes to the Senate.
North Carolina is considering the legislation at a time when several other states have recently passed bills requiring "In God We Trust" signs to be placed in schools.
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which works with a group of members of Congress on faith issues, has launched "Project Blitz," an effort to flood state legislatures with bills such as "In God We Trust" legislation. The group says it's trying "to protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs."
"In God We Trust" was adopted as the national motto by Congress in 1956.
Insko warned that the bill could put the state at risk of legal challenges. But Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican, pointed to how displaying the national motto has been upheld in several federal court rulings.
“If every court in the nation has upheld the constitutionality of the national motto 'In God We Trust' on our currency and in our public buildings, then certainly it’s constitutional to display that in public school buildings that are used and paid for by those dollars which bear our national motto," Arp said.
Rep.. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican, said the First Amendment doesn't prevent God from being mentioned.
“Saying in God we trust acknowledges a very important factor of our national history and does not establish any particular religion as the one to which everyone must follow," Pittman said. "It simply acknowledges a general belief in God which has been a very important part of our history and to try to deny that is to obscure something very foundational in our history."
The legislation provides $25,000 to pay for the signs.
“I‘m not against God," said Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. "But what more could we do with those dollars to improve educational outcomes in this state?"