Lawmakers seek AG’s opinion on displaying ‘In God We Trust’ in schools

Published 3:46 pm Monday, August 27, 2018

As a local school system continues to seek answers to a legal problem about posting the national motto in schools, a group of local lawmakers has turned to the State’s Attorney General seeking guidance to help school officials.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation requiring all public schools in the state to prominently display the national motto “In God We Trust” in the schools. The bill, called the National Motto In The Classroom Act, was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.

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The Carter County School System has held off on posting the motto on the legal advice of two attorneys due to a 30-year federal class-action lawsuit against the school system which resulted in a federal injunction being issued by the court against the system. In that lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hull issued a permanent injunction against the school system. “It is ordered that a permanent injunction should issue perpetually enjoining, restraining, and prohibiting the above-named defendants in their official capacities and their successors, agents, and employees from allowing, approving or encouraging religious activities in the public schools for Carter County, Tennessee during public school hours,” the order signed by Hull states.

The Carter County Board of Education met in a closed legal session with Board Attorney John Banks last week, after which Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward said the system is still exploring what legal options the system has regarding displaying the motto to comply with state law in light of the federal injunction.

Ward said he and Board Chairman Rusty Barnett had reached out to state officials to seek guidance and make them aware of the unique position the school system finds itself in being stuck between complying with the state law and complying with the federal court injunction.

State lawmakers representing Carter County are now reaching out to State Attorney General Herbert Slatery to seek his opinion.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, Sen. Jon Lundberg, Rep. Timothy Hill and Rep. John Holsclaw sent a request to Slatery asking him to render an opinion regarding the potential conflict the Carter County School System faces with the National Motto In the Classroom Act. All four of the legislators voted in support of the legislation.

Specifically, the delegation members are trying to determine if the school system or the Carter County Board of Education would violate the injunction if the system decided to post the words “In God We Trust” in each of the schools in the district.

“We made the request for an expedited opinion because we want the school system to have all the information in front of them so they can make the best decision possible,” said Hill, who was one of the original co-sponsors for the legislation.

Hill said he is not aware of any legal challenges to the law at this time and he does not foresee any legal issues with schools displaying the motto.

“It is the national motto, and it has been upheld in court as just that,” Hill said. “I think the law is on good footing. We just have to see with Carter County’s unique legal situation where they stand.”

Crowe, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, is hoping the Attorney General will issue an opinion supporting the new law and creating a pathway for Carter County Schools to proceed with displaying the motto in the schools.

“I think all the schools in Tennessee now have the motto displayed except for Carter County,” Crowe said. “Carter County is in an interesting situation because they had a federal injunction placed on them.”

Crowe noted that the injunction deals with allowing or encouraging religious activities during school hours, while the law is about promoting the nation’s history and traditions.

“The intent of this is to make sure the kids understand this is our motto,” Crowe said. “This will relay to our youth the intent of our founders in the days this nation was formed.”

“I was proud to help pass this legislation,” he added. “It is something we felt certain is not only legal but is the right thing to do.”

Samantha Fisher, communications director for the Office of the State Attorney General, said she had received several calls in recent weeks regarding the National Motto In The Classroom Act.

“If we do issue an opinion it will be made public,” Fisher said. “That would not be binding. It would just be an opinion.”