In God We Trust, the organization founded by Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan, has reached a milestone with 300 jurisdictions that she knows of agreeing to post those four words in their chambers.
Sullivan started In God We Trust with a proposal in 2002 to have Bakersfield post the nation's motto. It did, and other nearby jurisdictions soon followed -- Tehachapi, Wasco, Delano and Porterville. Two years later, Sullivan formed a nonprofit to further her cause.
Sullivan said she got the idea in 2001 when she heard a news story on a Christian radio station about a group protesting the display of In God We Trust on its local government building.
"I was offended that they were offended," she said. "They were trying to take it down. I just felt a wave of determination."
A handful of the 300 decided before 2002 to post the motto. Sullivan said there are likely other cities and counties she hasn't heard about that could be included on the list.
"There are hundreds that would be on the list if they knew about what we were doing," she said. "The biggest challenge is just getting the word out ... that there is a strong movement to display In God We Trust in government buildings and it is legal."
Congress reaffirmed In God We Trust as the nation's motto last year. That encouraged officials to display the phrase in public schools and government buildings.
SPREADING THE WORD
The 300 jurisdictions are in just 13 states, and the latest is Newman, Calif., in Stanislaus County. Sullivan said her organization doesn't target specific states, but relies on word of mouth, a monthly newsletter and talk radio appearances to publicize its goal.
One is Sparta, Mich., a 4,200-population city in west Michigan -- and this reporter's hometown. Village President Leonard "Skip" Meyer said he heard Sullivan speak on the Texas-based radio program "WallBuilders," hosted by evangelical Christian minister David Barton. That led him to propose the idea for Sparta, the only jurisdiction in Michigan to vote to post the motto.
"My board jumped on it," Meyer, an ordained minister, said.
But officials in outlying Sparta Township weren't as enthusiastic. They said, "'What about the separation of church and state?'" Meyer said.
"Oh, please!" he said. "It has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. We're not promoting God; we're promoting our national motto. "
Although the council voted on the move in 2009, it hasn't yet posted the motto, Meyer said. It'll probably use a self-standing plaque because it can't post the four words permanently -- it doesn't own its meeting hall.
Kristi Dougan, a member of the Sparta council, said in an email she was surprised the action was being considered at the time, but voted to post the motto in line with her constituents' views.
"Considering the need to display 'In God We Trust' in our council chambers while we make decisions on behalf of the public challenged my personally held philosophy on the role of government," she said.
Norman, Okla., has not one but three mottos posted in council chambers.
Norman City Councilman Jim Griffith said a very conservative council member heard about the idea from Sullivan's organization and brought it before the council. It was hotly-debated among the council members, he said.
"(The discussion was) what if a constituent doesn't believe in God? ... Are they going to feel comfortable speaking before a council with this emblazoned upon the dais?" he said.
Another council member suggested posting "E Pluribus Unum (Out of one, many)," from the seal of the United States. Another suggested Oklahoma's motto: "Labor Omnia Vincit," Latin for "Labor conquers all things." In the end, both In God We Trust and E Pluribus Unum were posted behind the dais and the state motto on a plaque was hung on a wall.
"I didn't see the need for any of them," Griffith said. "To get In God We Trust up there, there really needed to be these others to get up there," he said. "That sort of tempered the extreme (and) made everything a little more palatable to me and to others of a more moderate bent on council."
Dave Gordon, a Democratic legislator for Oneida County, N.Y., said posting In God We Trust has more to do with principles than political bent. Gordon proposed the measure, and Oneida County legislators unanimously approved it.
People have lost hope in their elected representatives because of the stigma that politicians are corrupt, he said. Posting In God We Trust shows constituents their officials aren't led by self-interest, but by guiding principles and a higher power, he said.
"It's telling people that we still do have values in this country ... when deliberating on things that are going to impact people's lives."
Rich Chamberlin, a commissioner for Trinity County, Texas, suggested the motto be posted in the courtroom chambers where the commission meets.
"I think our constituents are God-loving people, and we are in that part of the country ... that's committed to Christian beliefs," he said. Posting the motto has generated a very positive response from the community and shows that the commissioners do their work "with a reverence to God," he said.
'IN GOD'S' FINANCES
After dipping for a few years starting in 2006, donations to Sullivan's organization have risen recently. Sullivan attributed the dip to the slow economy. In 2010, fundraising totaled $14,102,, but that's increased to $30,853 in 2011 and $37,950 so far this year, Sullivan said. Expenses for 2011 are still being finalized, but came to about $30,000 in 2011 and $25,000 so far this year, Sullivan said.
The biggest expense is an annual fundraiser dinner. In July, nationally known televangelist Kenneth Copeland was the guest speaker. Copeland, sometimes controversial for his "prosperity gospel" and whose ministry was once the subject of a Congressional investigation, waived his speaker fees, Sullivan said.
That means Sullivan and perhaps a few volunteers might be able to go to the national League of Cities conference in Boston next month, where they'd reach out to city officials about In God We Trust.
Sullivan takes her message to the California League of Cities meeting every year to meet with city officials at an exposition of vendors at the conference. California has 98 cities and counties that have voted to post the motto.
"I tell (people) if we can do this in California, it can be done anyplace,'" she said.