Atwater will put ‘God’ on chamber walls

This image will appear in two places at Atwater City Hall. The unveiling is scheduled for Nov. 11, but no time has been set.
This image will appear in two places at Atwater City Hall. The unveiling is scheduled for Nov. 11, but no time has been set. Image courtesy the city of Atwater

The Atwater City Council plans to post two “In God We Trust” signs at City Hall next month, setting up a potential legal battle – or at least a constitutional debate.

The five-member council unanimously approved the plan to post privately funded signs earlier this year, and last week it picked Nov. 11 as the day the signs will be unveiled. One sign will be posted on the council chamber wall behind the dais, and the other will go outside the chamber doorway, according to City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro.

Mayor Pro Tem Larry Bergman said the suggestion to post the signs came from In God We Trust America Inc., a Bakersfield-based organization founded “to protect America’s religious heritage,” according to its website.

Bergman said he spoke to local residents before deciding to support the installation of the signage.

“It’s basically becoming a national push,” he said Wednesday. “I truly believe this country was founded on religious principles.”

Detractors of the idea say the signs alienate nonbelievers and endorse a religion.

For Garrett Mayer, 25, a lifelong Atwater resident, arguments that the signs are not specific to any religion are disingenuous.

Mayer, who describes himself as a humanist, noted the unveiling ceremony next month is being organized by a Christian church and will feature a Christian band.

“I don’t have an issue with organized religion at all,” he said. “I have a problem with government-sponsored religion.”

The City Council, he said, is supposed to represent all of its constituents.

Bergman, a Lutheran, said he represents all Atwater residents regardless of their faith or lack of a faith and believes the signs need to go up. “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few,” he said.

The good of the many outweighs the good of the few

Mayor Pro Tem Larry Bergman on why the signs are necessary

The $660 cost of the two signs is being paid for by members of the public, Pietro said. Each depicts a red circle drawn around an American flag with the words “In God We Trust” wrapped around the top.

According to In God We Trust America, more than 100 California cities and counties have made similar decisions. Along with the signage plan comes the promise that Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a Christian nonprofit legal defense group, will defend the city at no cost if it faces legal opposition to the signs.

Brad Dacus, the nonprofit’s president, said hundreds of cities across the country have adopted signs in recent years. He said legal precedent has protected the language, which appears on U.S. currency.

“We don’t expect them ever to be sued on these grounds, because the Supreme Court has already upheld the constitutionality of our national motto on our currency,” he said.

The name “God” was evoked in the writing of the country’s Founding Fathers, Dacus said, including the Declaration of Independence. He said the phrase “In God We Trust” is part of the country’s heritage and is not specific to any particular religion.

Councilman Brian Raymond, who identifies as a Christian, said the signs can be interpreted to represent whatever deity a religious person worships. “We’re not forcing anything on anybody,” he said.

These are politicians. They’re doing political things. Religious pandering is political

Elizabeth Cavell, a staff attorney with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation

Complaints from around the country about “In God We Trust” signs have increased to hundreds in recent years, said Elizabeth Cavell, a staff attorney with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“These are politicians. They’re doing political things,” she said. “Religious pandering is political.”

According to a Pew Research Poll from May, more than 22 percent of Americans are non-religious. Cavell said Atwater certainly has non-religious residents even if they have not been vocal about the signs so far.

She admitted that cities with similar signs have been successful in court battles, but said the language is still divisive to many people.

She, too, questioned the argument that the sign wording is open for interpretation, saying it’s code for Jesus Christ. “It’s as disingenuous as it is untrue,” she said.

The council has not finalized a time for the unveiling.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller