When Chanute was thrust into the national spotlight by the removal of a painting of Jesus from the local middle school, it should have been an important civics lesson for the community. It provided an illustrative example about how the Constitution works, the importance of the separation between church and state, and why taxpayer-supported institutions should be welcoming to people of all backgrounds and all faiths.

Apparently, that isn’t what some local people took away from the well-publicized decision by the local school district. I find it odd whenever alleged small-government conservatives want any government entity telling people who to worship. However, some people matching that description took this controversy as a cue to try to increase governmental attempts to establish a religion.

Such a suggestion was made by one of our esteemed local City Commissioners at a meeting last Monday.

Usually, Jim Chappell is my favorite City Commissioner to watch during meetings because he is always so surly and grouchy. It’s nice to have a local politician to whom I can relate so well.

However, I lost some respect for him Monday night when I heard him suggest that the phrase “God Bless America” should be affixed on the back of Chanute police cars as a reaction to all of the publicity that the Jesus painting garnered. In making this comment, Chappell misidentified “God Bless America” as the national motto and falsely stated that police departments in Texas and elsewhere were putting that phrase on their cars.

“God Bless America” is a well-loved patriotic song, but it is not at all a national motto or something that has been deemed worthy of any government-sponsored decals. America’s motto is actually “In God We Trust,” and some police departments have recently chosen to display that on their vehicles.

Whatever the proper phrase is, Chappell apparently thinks it is worthy of highlighting on taxpayer-funded police vehicles. At least fellow Commissioner Randy Galemore volunteered to produce these decals at the printing business he owns, so the city that is apparently too cash-strapped to even sweep its streets next year won’t have to pay for them.

These City Commissioners are supposed to represent all of the people in city, in the same way that the local police protect all Chanute citizens regardless of their chosen religious affiliation or lack thereof. Both jobs will be undermined if a label is put on police vehicles that suggests certain religious views are preferable to others.

While most people in Chanute see faith and trust in God as a virtue, there are residents who don’t necessarily hold that view. They may not have the same name for “God” as the majority of people in this community do, or they may believe that religious devotion should not be a prerequisite for public service. Commissioners should remember that they represent these people too, and shouldn’t take unnecessary steps to exclude them from the community.

Putting “In God We Trust” signs on police cars is not going to increase anyone’s faith in God, or make anyone in the community behave more morally. All it will really do is set up this city for lawsuits. One fact that Chappell left out of his suggestion that police cars be used for proselytizing was that the same group of Wisconsin rabble-rousers who threatened to sue Royster over the Jesus painting is also threatening to sue police departments that put these labels on vehicles. Having people sue the Chanute police department, over a decision that no one who actually works there had anything to do with, is not the way to make this a better community.

 “In God We Trust” became our national motto in 1956, at the height of the Red Scare, when our government was employing everything it could to try to combat Communism. It was thought back then that emphasizing the belief that most Americans have in God would be a good way to contrast our values with those of the Soviet Union.

An effective national motto probably should not be borne out of such attempts to create fear and division. I prefer our previous national motto - E pluribus unum. That is Latin for “out of many, one.” It represents the idea that people from a variety of faiths, beliefs and backgrounds are in this country seeking a better life. This diverse group of people have all united around the idea that we should be free to speak and worship as we please. Even with our differences, our love of these ideals on which the United States was founded unites us all.

That seems like the kind of motto that we should be promoting on our police cars, a sentiment that would bring all people of this community together instead of just making some of them feel left out.

Please send all questions, comments, hate mail, marriage proposals, or ideas for decals that we could stick on the Chanute City Commissioners’ cars to brian@chanute.com

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