The recent decision by the State Board of Education to allow local districts to post the motto "In God We Trust" in Colorado schools has ignited plenty of hot debate on talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages.
But if the comments of local school district leaders in notoriously conservative El Paso County are any indication, the state board's move is largely a symbolic gesture that may have little effect on local schools.
Even administrators at Academy School District 20, which draws students from the backyard of the conservative Focus on the Family, say they have received no public comments -- via phone, email or otherwise -- on the motto since July 6, when the state school board made its decision.
Citing a 1956 law that declared "In God We Trust" the national motto, the state board voted 5-1 "to encourage the appropriate display [of the motto] in schools and other public buildings."
The move immediately drew praise from conservative commentators, and derision from civil libertarians. But in D-20, there's been hardly a peep from constituents on the issue, school officials said.
Calm before the storm
D-20 school board president Susan Krebs said the item hasn't been scheduled for discussion. The only people who've called her so far on the issue, she said, are reporters.
Though members of the public may raise the issue during the citizens' comment period, she said local constituents have been mum, even after the April 1999 Columbine tragedy sparked a national debate over the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.
"During the last year, when there was a lot of media coverage of the Ten Commandments issue, this has not come forward as a topic that the public has raised here," she said.
Krebs and other local school officials interviewed this week attributed this muted response to the fact that schools and many school board members are on summer vacation.
Likewise, parents and religious activists may not focus on school issues until the fall, and the current silence may just be the calm before a storm of controversy and lawsuits.
Perhaps, but some of the area's largest districts say there's been no public demand for the motto's posting -- and not a whole lot of outrage against it either.
Potential for conflict
"We have had two e-mails. Both of them were very clear that if we were to allow this, that they would pull their kids from the school and we would be taken to court," said Norm Ridder, the interim school superintendent at D-11, the city's largest school district.
Ridder said no comments have been received from parents who thought the motto was appropriate for D-11 schools. Still, Ridder said the school board may likely adopt a statement on the motto and may discuss the issue at its Aug. 8 work session meeting.
But even Ridder, who has a long background in religious instruction, opposes the whole notion of posting the motto in D-11 schools. Such a move would increase the likelihood that conversations about God between teachers and students might be misunderstood, particularly by kids in younger grades, and by parents.
"What would happen is that you'd have kids asking teachers about the motto and what it means and there's a lot of potential for conflict," said Ridder, who has a masters in theology and describes himself as a "strong member" of a local Christian church.
"When you have people shooting off the cuff on why I have this belief or that belief, it interferes with the students' own belief system," he said.
Just common sense
While officials at Cheyenne Mountain District 12 were on summer vacations and unavailable for comment, officials in Widefield District 3 were downright skeptical that their school board would entertain proposals to hang the motto in its schools.
"I would be stunned if [the district] did anything," said James Drew, a spokesman for the district. "We've always erred on the side of separation of church and state in all our dealings. It's not that we're not religious; we just have a lot of kids from a lot of different backgrounds."
But State School Board member John Burnett, who represents the Pikes Peak region on the board, said he's unequivocal in his support for the measure.
"It's just common sense," said Burnett. "It's our national motto, and I believe we should put it in our schools."
Local Christian conservative leader Thomas Pedigo, president of the Colorado chapter of the American Family Association, agreed with Burnett, saying that the motto could have a positive influence on children.
But Pedigo also agreed with school officials who suggest the motto issue has not ignited any organized support from Christian groups.
"I know of no effort by Focus on the Family, the American Family Association or the Christian Coalition," Pedigo said. "If there is a groundswell against [the motto] then you'll see a reaction from conservatives."
Pedigo said that if the motto is ultimately banned from public schools, then references to God will also have to be removed from coins, from state and federally funded war memorials and other public buildings.
Local civil libertarians see it differently. Megan Day, director of Citizens Project, a local civil liberties group, said it was "irresponsible" for the state board to recommend something that will likely be thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional.
"This isn't the same affront to religious pluralism as mandating the Ten Commandments in public schools was," she said. "But there are so many more pressing issues related to student achievement, I'm disappointed the board is spending so much time on a motto."
-- Malcolm Howard
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