Editorial: Separation of church and state: Stop the pettiness

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Allegheny County Council struck down legislation that would have placed the words “In God We Trust” in the county’s courthouse Tuesday night. 

The national motto would have graced a three-foot-square plaque alongside the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” and the Pennsylvania motto “Virtue, liberty and independence.”

As Councilman Ed Kress (R-Shaler) put it, “All we are doing is honoring our state motto and our national motto.” Additionally, Councilwoman Sue Means (R-Bethel Park) stressed, “It’s our national motto. It’s patriotism. It’s history.”

But community leaders made an example out of the proposed additon to the plaque. County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald led the charge.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the Allegheny county democrat urged council members to vote no on the bill, saying diversity needed to be improved — implying that such a measure would obstruct that.

In an email to council members, Fitzgerald stated, “Support and passage of [the proposed legislation] tells our residents and visitors that if they are Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Athiest, Muslim, Islamic or any other non-theistic group, they are not welcomed here.” 

Clearly, it is not the national motto that is disrespectful to these religions, but rather Fitzgerald’s email itself. According to the message, Jews and Muslims do not believe in a deity and atheists are not even worthy of a quick spell-check. 

It’s a petty conflict. But even more petty is a controversy created out of something like words on a three-foot-square plaque.

The separation of church and state is essential to a free democratic society, but obsessing over something like the display of a national motto is a distraction from real First Amendment violations that occur throughout the country. 

For instance, in some states, laws remain on the books that outlaw atheists from holding office. These states include Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Article 14, Section 265 of Arkansas’ constitution states, “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.” 

It doesn’t take an ivy-league constitutional law professor to realize that such laws are in violation of First Amendment rights, which are guaranteed to state citizens through the incorporation clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States constitution.

But exactly whose freedom is being squandered by the proposed three-foot-square plaque? No one’s. 

Displaying the national motto in a courthouse is not a real injustice. 

Fighting laws that actually violate church-state separation, such as any that would establish government preference of particular religions and inhibit the practice of others, is a laudable effort. 

But the focus on more petty matters — such as the use of the word God in the pledge of allegiance or our national motto — is not adding to the separation of church and state but distracting from real breaches of it.

It is time we say no to leaders and citizens whose support lies on the foundation of pettiness. Our efforts as a city, state and country should be to fight against actual injustice and to do so without the distraction of meaningless crusades against words and signs.