CLINTON—After hearing from the Anderson County law director, a county committee on Monday endorsed a proposal to put the national motto “In God We Trust” above each of the four doors at the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton.
The motion by Anderson County Commissioner Robert McKamey was endorsed in a 5-3 vote at an Anderson County Operations Committee meeting on Monday evening. All three “no” votes came from Oak Ridge commissioners.
McKamey’s motion called for installing black metal signs above the doors with white lettering that says “In God We Trust.” The total estimated cost is $500 or less, and the signs would be installed by a professional firm.
The recommendation will be considered by the full 16-member Anderson County Commission later this month. Commission already endorsed the proposal in a 12-4 vote lat month, but referred it to the Operations Committee to discuss legal, liability, and design issues.
Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager said he thinks displaying the national motto on a county government building will be constitutional as long as it doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and commissioners follow proper procedures and safeguards.
Among other things, the signs have to be displayed for a secular purpose, can’t advance or inhibit religion, and can’t convey—to a reasonable viewer—a government endorsement of religion, said Yeager, who has issued a confidential legal opinion to commissioners.
Yeager recommended against proposals to let churches or volunteers pay for or install the signs.
“We don’t want excessive entanglement,” he said.
So far, commissioners have followed his legal guidance, Yeager said, but he is being cautious. Two groups—whom he declined to name—have said they could challenge the signs.
But Yeager said the county has constitutional lawyers who are willing to help it defend its decision to install them. He said he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar.
If the county were sued, “I’ll take it all the way,” Yeager said to a round of applause.
More than a dozen residents spoke during a public comment period at the meeting, some in favor of the proposal and others opposed.
Commissioners who voted to recommend the signs were McKamey and Steve Emert, Zach Bates, Tracy Wandell, and Rick Meredith.
Voting against the proposal were commissioners Robin Biloski, who chairs the Operations Committee, and Jerry Creasey and Whitey Hitchcock.
Several commissioners, including Biloski and Anderson County Commissioner John Shuey, who is not an Operations Committee member, raised questions about the potential legal costs if a lawsuit were filed. Although McKamey disagreed, Creasey said McKamey’s motion didn’t leave room for other mottos, such as the original national motto “E pluribus unum.”
Several who supported the “In God We Trust” proposal cited a “clawing away” or “whittling away” of their rights and beliefs.
McKamey said the signs would be easy to remove if that became necessary.
More information will be added as it becomes available.