Note: This story was updated at 2:49 p.m.
CLINTON—After hours of discussion and five meetings, the Anderson County Commission has agreed to place four black granite signs inscribed with the national motto “In God We Trust” in gold letters above each of the four doors at the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton.
The signs would be paid for by donations. Commission agreed to accept contributions and donations in the Anderson County Budget Director’s Office.
It’s the third time the signs have been considered by the commission since February. They’ve also been considered twice by the Anderson County Operations Committee. Much of the debate among commissioners and residents has focused on the whether the signs should be posted at all—some opponents would like to keep a strict separation between church and state—and whether other mottos such as “E pluribus unum” and “Liberty and Justice for All” should also be included.
One of the main issues as the signs bounced back and forth between the full commission and the Operations Committee was the design. Commissioners sought a more dignified design than the black metal signs that were initially proposed.
But there were also proposals, including from commissioners Myron Iwanski and Jerry Creasey, to allow other mottos. However, those recommendations were repeatedly rejected. One motion to place four “clearly secular” slogans over the courthouse doors failed in a 3-5 vote in the Operations Committee meeting last week.
On Monday, Iwanski said he thought the “In God We Trust” proposal had been rushed, and it should have gone to the Operations Committee before it was considered, and approved, by the full commission in a 12-4 vote in February. That could have reduced confusion, the number of meetings involved, and the county’s legal liability, Iwanski said.
Still, the vote on Monday was closer than it has been in previous meetings. Iwanski and another Oak Ridge commissioner who had previously voted against the signs, Operations Committee Chair Robin Biloski, said they were ready to move on and voted in favor.
“This has turned into a very emotional issue for Anderson County,” Biloski said.
There were 14 “yes” notes, zero “no” votes, and two abstentions for the granite signs during Monday’s daytime County Commission meeting. The abstentions came from Creasey and fellow Oak Ridge commissioner Whitey Hitchcock. Both have previously voted against the sign proposal, recommending that other mottos be included as well.
Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank said there is room on the courthouse and in its hallways for other slogans.
At the request of Judge Ron Murch, the commission also agreed to install the signs at the Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge, subject to the approval of the building’s landlord. Hitchcock also abstained from that vote.
Anderson County Law Director Jay Yeager has 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.
More information will be added as it becomes available.