HARRISBURG -- A proposal moving through the House would encourage schools to post the motto "In God We Trust," a step proponents say would celebrate U.S. and Pennsylvania history but which critics warn could open the door to legal challenges.
As proposed by Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, the bill would have required school districts to display the words "In God We Trust" in each school building. But the House, by a 196-0 vote last week, changed the bill to state that schools "may" display the motto, while also encouraging them to show the Bill of Rights alongside it.
Mr. Saccone, the author of a recent book titled "God in Our Government," describes the proposal as a nod to state history. As his bill states, it was a Pennsylvania governor, James Pollock, who as director of the U.S. Mint suggested that the phrase be featured on the nation's currency.
The proposal is timely as well. April 22 marks 150 years since Congress in 1864 authorized minting the 2-cent coin, the U.S. currency on which the words "In God We Trust" first appeared. (It was not until 1956 that Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a resolution declaring the phrase to be the national motto, according to the Treasury.)
"It's a great Pennsylvania story, because it started right here in our state," Mr. Saccone said in an interview. "When our country was in hard times, in turmoil, they decided to put this motto on our coins. There's a reason for that."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, warns that the religious language in the motto means its display could leave schools vulnerable to a challenge under the U.S. Constitution.
"It implies the state House is giving its blessing to schools to do this," Andy Hoover, the group's legislative director, said of the bill. "Frankly, schools post this phrase at their own risk."
Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, said members have concerns about such a possibility.
"The bill could lead to unwanted legal battles for some school districts, which would obviously incur costs as a result," he said.
Neither the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators nor the Pennsylvania School Boards Association have taken a position on the bill.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, who hold the majority, said he does not know if the bill will be brought up for a final vote when legislators return in June.
Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, said the placement of the phrase -- in this case, inside a public school -- could be significant to a court's review.
"We know the national motto is not generally unconstitutional," he said. "The argument could be made that the national motto is constitutional in general, but, like the Ten Commandments, not constitutional inside the schools, the public schools."
But Mr. Ledewitz said he believes the current Supreme Court, which last week upheld legislative prayer, would not accept that argument.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.