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Council debates decals

In response to the recent proposal by a local veterinarian to affix “In God We Trust” decals on all city vehicles, a national organization called The Original Motto Project has proposed instead displaying “E Pluribus Unum” — From Many, One — saying it better aligns with what the founding fathers intended for the nation, isn’t divisive, doesn’t favor one religious group over others or the non-religious and doesn’t violate the principle of church-state separation.

“E Pluribus Unum … takes all points of view, and sometimes the quarrels between those competing viewpoints, to (show) America (as) the richly pluralistic society that it is,” stated Robert Ray, executive director of The Original Motto Project, which began in 2002 in Bakersfield, Calif., in reaction to a proposal to place an In God We Trust plaque in that town’s council chambers.

“In God We Trust, though it is currently enshrined by law as the official motto of the U.S., is inherently divisive,” Ray stated in his email, sent last week to Altoona City Council and copied to the Mirror, following Dr. Matt Stachmus’ reiteration of his April decal proposal.

Not only does In God We Trust “exclude a significant minority — i.e. the nonreligious — but it also excludes those religions that believe in multiple gods, as well as those that believe in none (like Buddhists),” Ray stated.

For some, it also represents an endorsement of Christianity, putting it potentially in conflict with the principle of keeping the state out of the business of religion, according to Ray.

The city would do well not to put either kind of decal on its vehicles, according to City Manager Peter Marshall.

The only markings on any vehicle of government should be the name of the agencies that own it, the name of the agency providing the service it’s intended for, appropriate indicators of its function and perhaps a phone number in the case of emergency vehicles, according to Marshall.

Asked which rival proposal he’d choose if he had to choose one, Marshall picked E Pluribus Unum, however.

Stachmus “clearly had a religious thing in mind” when he first proposed his In God We Trust decals, Marshall said.

He “tried to make a patriotic issue” out of the proposal the second time, Marshall said.

City solicitor Dan Stants said recently that the U.S. Supreme Court has been inconsistent in its rulings that could apply to the motto in connection with church-state separation.

During his second presentation, Stachmus challenged council members to muster the “courage” to vote for his proposal, invoking service members who’d died in action.

Councilman Dave Butter­baugh supports Stachmus.

Ray is off-base in his plea for E Pluribus Unum, according to Butterbaugh.

“Fred Flintstone could make a better argument to change the national motto to ‘Yabba dabba do!” Butterbaugh said.

Ray is wrong in trying to equate In God We Trust with Christianity, Butter­baugh added.

“There’s nothing overtly Christian about it,” Butterbaugh said.

Ray’s email includes the phrase “many government agents and agencies who display the motto believe it to be an overt endorsement of Christian belief” — although he likely meant “covert,” based on the context.

In God We Trust is actually “generic,” Butterbaugh said.

It contrasts with Christianity’s focus on Christ, whom Christians believe to be the son of God, according to Butterbaugh.

It would be a different matter if council were considering “Jesus saves,” Butterbaugh said.

In God We Trust reflects the founding fathers’ belief that a supreme being — not the government — is the ultimate source of the individual rights memorialized in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, according to Butterbaugh.

Moreover, council is not intending a “prominent” display, as Ray charges, Butterbaugh said.

Instead, it’s leaning toward something modest, he said.

“Nothing overbearing,” he said. “Nothing over the top.”

The details still need to be worked out, he said.

Departmental employees might even be given a choice in whether to have the decal affixed to the vehicles they drive, he said.

The matter is expected to come up for a vote in July.

Stachmus last year succeeded in persuading council to post a plaque bearing In God We Trust on the front of the multi-station desk behind which members sit for meetings.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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