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Rexburg declines to pass ‘In God We Trust’ display ordinance

October 7, 2017

REXBURG— In a surprise move, the Rexburg City Council tabled a proposed “In God We Trust” resolution allowing it to display the nation’s motto in city hall. The city made the decision during Wednesday’s city council meeting.

Many considered the resolution a done deal, but that quickly changed after three Brigham Young University-Idaho professors, two residents and a businessman suggested that doing so would alienate Rexburg’s non-LDS/Christian and non-believers.

Mayor Jerry Merrill originally suggested the idea after seeing a push for adding such displays via the group In God We Trust – America, Inc.

“A lady in California is promoting a drive to have the national motto ‘In God We Trust’ displayed in city council chambers across the country,” he said. “We read some of her information and felt like it was something we could visit about and to see if it’s something we wanted to do.”

Doing so is perfectly legal as it was re-affirmed by the United States Congress in 2011. That same year, the United States Supreme Court allowed for the motto to continue being printed on American money. It explained that the slogan didn’t promote any particular denomination.

Prior to the public discussion, Merrill said that while he liked the motto, he wanted to first hear residents’ and council members’ opinions on the matter.

Council President Sally Smith first spoke by reading a letter from BYU-Idaho professor Jessica Mecham who was against the proposal.

Mecham noted that the original motto was created in the 1950s in what she called a “political move” to openly oppose the Cold War.

“We wanted to proclaim ourselves as ‘God believing people’ and ‘Morally superior’ against the ungodly Communists,” she said. “I’m not arguing in favor of the USSR, but I am not comfortable with emphasizing a motto born of wartime terror and the resulting, quote, ‘cultural wars’ that took place during the Red Scare.”

Mecham noted the McCarthyism of the time, where the government ruined the lives of Americans believed to be communist sympathizers.

“McCarthyism is a very ugly blemish on our past,” she said.

Mecham also pointed out that adding the “In God We Trust” motto at city hall would further alienate the communities non-believers.

“They already feel like outcasts and have a hard time fitting in as it is,” she said.

Mecham said she moved to Rexburg 15 years ago and noted, that despite being LDS/Christian, she still found it difficult to fit in.

“There are families who have been here for generations – ‘Rexburg royalty’ – if you will,” she wrote. “It has taken me a long time to find friends and settle in. With a few exceptions, my friends are recent transplants. I can’t imagine trying to break in here if not being LDS or at least Christian.”

Mecham said that adding the motto would be reactionary and nationalistic.

“Nationalism is a very scary thing,” she said. “(The slogan) ‘Make America Great Again’ is an example.”

Mecham said that the national motto also suggests that the United States is predominantly a Christian nation.

“We are not,” she said. “We were not founded on such.”

She pointed out Merrill’s statements to the Standard Journal about the American Founding Fathers being “God fearing.” Mecham said the country was instead founded on the principle of religious freedom.

“That is totally different,” she wrote. “There should be a separation of church and state. That protects those of us on how we want to worship and as our conscience dictates — not on the behest of a government organization.”

Mecham’s fellow BYU-Idaho professor Joelle Moen also spoke. Moen has lived in Rexburg for 22 years and is also LDS.

“I don’t think the reasoning behind this is malicious, ill intended or anything else,” she said. “There are specific reasons why I think this resolution, if it were passed, needs a lot more thought and consideration.”

Moen noted that Merrill had hoped that the motto would help promote patriotism in the community. She said that Rexburg already has a lot of patriotism, and that’s shown by the amount of people attending the recent Fourth of July parade. She also pointed out the annual 9-11 displays at Porter Park and the veteran’s memorial at Smith Park.

“The commemorations on Memorial Day – there are flags all over the city as there are on most national holidays,” she said.

Moen suggested that instead of the motto “In God We Trust” that the city consider displaying a phrase more specific to the community like “Amber Wavers of Grain,” “Purple Mountains Majesty,” “Liberty and Justice for All” or “America the Beautiful.”

“It’s all about uniting us,” she said.

Moen pointed out that Merrill told the Standard Journal the national motto might help the city make better decisions.

“If your decision making is so bad, we should vote differently,” she said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Merrill said he had hoped the displayed motto would positively influence the city council.

“My thoughts were that, if we trust in God, hopefully, we will make better decisions — not that we’ve made horrible ones,” he said. “There are always good things we can do.”

Moen said that money spent on a display could be spent better elsewhere and such as on E. Coli testing as was experienced in Rexburg last week.

Moen was concerned that the In God We Trust – America, Inc. organization listed cities it had persuaded to display the nation’s motto. It also asked for money and she was concerned about attaching “the city’s good name” to it.

“We should not be a part of someone else’s propaganda,” she said.

Moen noted how “In God We Trust” was placed on money during the war between the States to further alienate the Yankees from the Confederates. It resulted from a minister telling the then U.S. Secretary of Treasury that doing so would “relieve of us the ignominy of heathenism.”

“At the start of the Civil War, a great slur that the Confederates and the North had was ’Those godless Yankees; those heathen Confederates,” she said.

She echoed Mecham’s thoughts about then President Dwight Eisenhower’s “In God We Trust” motto being used to help fight the USSR.

“How do we make ourselves different?” she said. “How do we make them the Godless Communists? The question becomes ‘Who are these heathens that we’ve defined ourselves against?’ If we’re doing it in this tradition, that’s what we’re saying. We’re the Yankees in the North, and the Godless heathens in Rigby — are they the South? Salt Lake? Provo? So, do we want to make sure other religions know they’re not welcome?”

Moen noted the recent Great American Eclipse where people from various religions, races and countries visited here.

“They loved being here,” she said. “They felt welcome. It’s something we want to build upon.”

Merrill pointed out that the word “God” in the motto doesn’t refer to any particular religion’s God.

“It doesn’t say ‘In the LDS God we trust,’” he said. “It just says ‘In God We Trust.’ I understand there are other religions that are non-Christian. To be honest, I’m not totally married to doing this. It came up and sounded like a good thing.”

Councilwoman Tisha Flora said that she didn’t believe the phrase leaves anyone out.

“I don’t feel it excludes anybody from coming here and not feeling a part of this community,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful gesture to help remind us it is a huge commitment to be on city council. I know each of us don’t take it lightly. As long as we’re not attaching (the motto) to an organization or taking money or whatever. I don’t feel like it’s something is bad.”

BYU-Idaho professor, Emily Grover, also spoke to the council. She said she had mixed feelings about the motto and said that the Founding Fathers didn’t emphasize any religion but instead relied on “e pluribus unum” which translated means “out of many, one.”

“It counts for multiplicity,” she said. “There are so many different faiths; yet, we share this American identity. We’re part of one group. ‘God We Trust’ has been sort of used to polarize people politically. I think that the intentions we have of putting it up are different from what people might read.”

Rexburg resident Annalisa Wiggins spoke and expressed concern that the In God We Trust – America, Inc. organization would consider Rexburg “a feather in its cap.”

“They list on their website 600 cities,” she said. “(They could say) ‘Look, here’s our gallery. We’ve gotten Rexburg too.’”

“Is that a bad thing to join with other cities that think that way?” Merrill asked.

“I think it’s one of those things that just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean we should,” she said. “It’s something that seems so innocuous to so many people but can be very meaningful to others in other ways.”

Wiggins says that she has a Muslim living in her neighborhood and was concerned about the impact of the phrase on him.

“I think you’ve made a lot of good points, but don’t Muslim people have a god?” Merrill asked. “When we say ‘In God We Trust’ does that exclude Muslim people?”

Wiggins questioned if the phrase was simply generic or if it had meaning. If it didn’t have meaning, does it cheapen it to display and to say it, she asked.

“I think it has meaning in what we believe,” Merrill said.

Wiggins asked that if the phrase had meaning, did it belong in a government building.

“We must be careful and consider implications of how are we are using the name of God when we put his name up,” she asked. “What meaning are we putting there for other people?”

Wiggins noted that people weren’t especially religious during the country’s founding but started to be when it unified one group against another.

“It comes when our Union people felt threatened and needed to claim a moral superiority,” she said. “That’s where we found this phrase. When the Soviet Union promoted state sponsored atheism, (we said) “We’re better; We’re morally superior because we have God.’”

Wiggins said that people could be patriotic without being religious.

“I don’t want to see my God used as a bully stick,” she said. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s intention, but I think that could be the intention whether conscious or not for these nationalistic groups. I don’t want to see God used as an exclusion (to say) ’You’re not a part of the club or part of the community. So many in our community do feel excluded.”

Rexburg resident Miriam Hartshorn spoke and said she had serious concerns about formalizing the “In God We Trust” motto. In her research, Hartshorn said that the phrase had been used so much that it had lost its religious attachment.

“It’s so common,” she said. “It doesn’t make any references to any particular God. Many of us are God fearing and God trusting, but I don’t believe this phrase is the appropriate way to express that.”

Hartshorn was also concerned that the In God We Trust — America, Inc. organization was only created because another group didn’t like the phrase.

“When a group of people is offended and (someone else says) ‘Well, I’m offended,’ I have a problem with this,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good loving God-fearing response to a group of people who have a concern.”

Hartshorn suggested the phrase instead might be a way to silence those with differing opinions.

“I just feel really strongly that if the city of Rexburg wants to express itself as God-trusting and a God-fearing community, we can do that without a plaque,” she said. “We can do that by the way we behave with our neighbors and businesses. We can do that in a way that doesn’t make other people feel isolated or alienated.”

Long time business owner Steve Oakey was the last to speak. Oakey said that in his travels, he’s noticed that the predominant religion often keeps quiet those with differing opinions. He hadn’t planned to speak during city council but said that the women speaking before him gave him the motivation to say something.

“A government should be a governance for all,” he said.

Oakey said that he had traveled overseas extensively and had lived in the Middle East for many years. While there, he noted that those with differing religions were often kept quiet, and that religion “has been very divisive” at times. Oakey wasn’t offended by the proposed initiative, but instead believed it was “misplaced and misguided.”

“We have a predominantly LDS faith in this community,” he said. “I have found myself silenced in public for fear of being outed for my own thinking. I would hope the council would reconsider any public display including opening prayers during city council.”

The United States Supreme Court has also voted to allow prayers prior to governmental meetings. It reaffirmed that in 2014 and noted that its own court often starts its own meetings with “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

Councilman Brad Wolfe said that while visiting Washington D.C., he noticed that the word “‘God’ was in everything” he saw there. He also noted having many friends who weren’t members of any church but still believed in a higher power.

“I don’t think we would offend as many people as we think we would if we do this,” he said. “We call our God, ‘God.’ Other religions call their god something else. It’s the same thing.”

Prior to the meeting, Wolfe planned to approve the resolution but after hearing the comments, he had a change of heart.

“I came here thinking ‘Hey, this sounds great,’ but the more I think about it, we should consider it and not act on it tonight,” he said. “That’s my feeling.”

Wolfe’s fellow City Councilman Christopher Mann said that, like Wolfe, he planned to sign the resolution. Mann said that he does well in other city business such as overseeing zoning and annexation changes but discussing religious beliefs is another matter.

“When we get into very personal religious things at city council, it bothers me,” he said. “I’m also a God-fearing person. I don’t want to vote against God. I’m just being honest. Being patriotic isn’t about waving a flag or putting up a logo. It’s how we live, how we pay taxes and how we’re a part of a community.”

Merrill said that normally the city quickly passes resolutions but in this case he was open to discussion.

“I had a few reservations myself and wanted to hear thoughts,” he said. “A couple of thoughts are that if we trust in God, we should we be treating nonbelievers with love and respect.”

Merrill said that to “Trust in God” seemed like a good motto to live by.

“I don’t think that sounds bad,” he said. “The point was brought up by several people who said ‘should our actions say ‘We believe in this motto’ rather than just posting it on the wall. To me we can encourage ourselves to love and respect each other no matter what god we believe in or if we believe in God at all. I’m fine with that.”

It wasn’t clear if the city council planned to return with an amended “In God We Trust” resolution at a later date.

The city council meets again at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 18, at city hall. The meeting is open to the public. For more information call 208-359-3020.