First, let me state emphatically that I am a lifelong friend of Sheriff Gary Gulledge, of Paulding County, GA. We grew up together, played sports together, have had many meals together, and I consider him a good friend who would do anything to help me just as I would for him. What I am about to say in no reflects a break in that friendship.
But, Gary, what the heck were you thinking?
It seems the Paulding County Sheriff's Department is placing "In God We Trust" stickers on all department vehicles. While the movement seems to be one that many departments across the nation are now doing, it doesn't make it right.
Let's be clear on something: I firmly believe Sheriff Gulledge's heart is in the right place. He is doing what he thinks is a good gesture towards the community, his personnel, and a bit of patriotism, too. He is not in any way trying to break the law, marginalize anyone, or cause problems. He is simply standing up for what he believes and trying to do something good.
None of that excuses the seriousness of the mistake of these stickers.
First, the Sheriff was quick to point out (see his statement here) that the stickers were paid for by his personal money, or the money of the deputies that chose to place the sticker on their patrol car. No taxpayer money was used. No problem, right? Well, that is a big problem: it shows that this is recognized as a distinctly religious statement and using taxpayer money would never fly from a Constitutional stand point. Thus, if it is recognized as an entanglement of church and state if taxpayer money was used, then it must be viewed as still a religious statement if private money is used. And since these stickers are on county vehicles, paid for by the county taxpayer, why are religious statements allowed?
Second, it should be painfully obvious that reasonable people would see this as a definite religious advancement, and thus an establishment issue. This is evident in the statements of nearly everyone that is praising God these stickers are on the vehicles. The people of the county see this for what it is: a clear religious statement on county vehicles.
Third, the Sheriff was explicit that he did this because he was doing exactly what the nation was founded on, i.e., God. While I disagree with him that the nation was founded on God or any uniquely Christian principles (or any religious values at all, for that matter), his statement that this is what the United States of America was found upon and is one of the principles I live my life upon demonstrates clearly that this is his advancement of religion using the official arm of the sheriff's department.
Fourth, it is highly problematic that deputies are paying for the stickers out of their own pocket. What if a deputy is of a different religion than the Sheriff? Wouldn't there be at least subtle coercion for the deputy to spend the money on an obvious faith statement? What if the deputy is of no faith? Will there be retaliation? I'm certain my friend Gary Gulledge would never --- not ever --- retaliate against a deputy for being of a different or no faith. I'm certain that wouldn't happen. But what of others in the department? How will they treat a fellow deputy who is singled out for being different? Fact is, there is an immediate coercive environment towards minority faith deputies, whether overt, covert, or perceived. It is there and there is no denying that.
Fifth, how does the community see this? Judging by the comments, nearly everyone loves the idea as God is getting the glory. Amen, right? Well, how do minority religions feel? To people of different religions or no religion at all, the message is very clear: faith is given the nod because this is a God-fearing county and if you aren't in the majority religion, you are 2nd class and don't get the benefit of the doubt. Many citizens will be marginalized, either real or perceived, and they will always wonder if they are getting the same treatment as the majority faith gets. This looks like the law enforcement arm of Paulding County gives favor to one religion, and that is the religion of the Sheriff.
Sixth, the stickers on patrol cars have never been challenged in court with a ruling one way or the other, as far as I can tell. So that means this is probably legal until a judge says it is not. Still, that doesn't make it right and the problems noted should be enough to say this is not a good idea.
Just as a last point of reference, the statement In God We Trust is indeed the US national motto, as of 1956. That doesn't mean it is not a religious statement. While most today simply see it as a legal generic nod to a ceremonial and patriotic duty, that idea is rapidly changing in every day practice as evidenced by the positive comments for these stickers. And, yes, the statement is on our currency, but that, too, is very recent and, like the motto change, done for the expressed purpose of making a religious statement as an up yours to the Soviet Union and their godless system of government. Again, everyone knew it was a religious statement then, and we know it is a religious statement now: the legal challenge will come --- eventually.
In the meantime, the stickers stand. It's legal. It's viewed as the placing of the national motto and not a religious statement. Still doesn't make it right.
Remember: if we open the door to putting God on the patrol cars, that same door will allow Allah on that same vehicle in the future. The only way to prevent the latter, is to make sure the former is not allowed either. Giving the hint of a Most Favored Religion is clearly a violation of the 1st amendment. I just pray that in our zeal to stand for God we don't forget that the majority faith in Paulding County, GA, once fought against this very thing when the Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Papists wanted their version of God given the nod of being more favored.