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The Multi-Tasking Congress

The good news is that Congress can multitask. In that respect it resembles the 21st Century adolescent. As with adolescents, however, it is not always clear that Congress does it well. At a time when the country faces the prospect of a shutdown because of the inability of members of Congress to work together, some of its members have introduced a bill that in significance, equals House Bill 1 that promised to repeal the Health Care law passed in 2010 and House Bill 3 that redefined rape for purposes of preventing federal funding for abortions.

A group of House Members who are probably not involved in trying to solve the budget problems and, therefore, have lots of time on their hands while that particular problem is being unresolved, got together over drinks and decided to introduce House Concurrent Resolution 13. Although not on the level of repealing health care or redefining rape, it is important in its own way, just as reading the Constitution of the United States aloud on the floor of the House when it first convened was important for reasons more significant than simply proving that the participants knew how to read. House Congressional Resolution 13 defends four words that its proponents feel need defending-“In God We Trust.”

Described as a “motto”, it was first adopted in 1956 when the cold war was flourishing and Congress felt it needed a motto to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union which did not, of course, trust in God but in Karl Marx or someone like him. The adoption was a joint resolution of Congress and was signed on July 30, 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The reason for the introduction of the HCR 13 may lie in the dissent in the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly. The dissenting justices in that case observed, when commenting on what would constitute a state sanctioning of religion, that the words “In God We Trust” had lost their religious significance. They said that “such practices as the designation of “In God We Trust” as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form of “ceremonial deism,” protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” It is likely that Congressman Randy Forbes (R.Va.) the author of the resolution was leafing through Supreme Court opinions in his spare time and came across that phrase. He decided that if “In God We Trust” was said by a United States Supreme Court Justice to be nothing more than a “ceremonial deism, he would fix that even though the Court’s observation was made 25 years earlier.

The goal of the Resolution is to reaffirm “‘In God We Trust'” as the official motto of the United States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.” The first “whereas” clause acknowledges that those four words are the official motto of the United States. This resolution is, however, considerably better than the one that is already on the books having been signed by President Eisenhower. It recites a litany of instances in which the citizens have turned to God for succor even though many of those citizens may in fact not believe in the same God as Randy and his colleagues. It observes that the words appear in the National Anthem, over the entrance to the Senate Chamber and above the Speaker’s rostrum in the House Chamber. It further says that “if religion and morality are taken out of the marketplace of ideas, the very freedom on which the United States was founded cannot be secured. ” Although unsaid, given the context the word religion clearly refers only to Christianity. The resolution ends with a statement that Congress not only reaffirms the motto but “encourages the public display of the national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions.”

Ronald A. Lindsay is the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He objects to the resolution and says: “The American people should be free to come to their own conclusions on religious issues without prodding, oversight, or manipulation by the government. God-if there is one-does not need the government as a publicist.” He’s right about God but overlooks the fact that Randy and his 64 House co-sponsors need the Resolution for publicity purposes. Defense of the Almighty, they hope, will relieve them from any blame for failing to address the more substantive issues facing the country. The next election will tell them whether they were right.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

 

 

 

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