CLINTON—In a ceremony that featured pastors, prayers, and patriotic songs, a group of about 150 people watched Tuesday morning as the first of four signs emblazoned with the national motto “In God We Trust” was unveiled at the Anderson County Courthouse in Clinton.
Supporters celebrated the installation of the seven-foot, 180-pound sign as a victory for the majority, a chance to honor the nation’s heritage.
“Whether you agree with this or disagree with this, the democratic process took place,” said Tom Byrge, director of missions for Clinton Baptist Association. “The majority of the U.S. citizens will continue to believe, and will not be ashamed to say, ‘In God We Trust.’”
“This is people standing up for what they believe in,” said Steve McDonald, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Oak Ridge. “We have a right to the democratic process and majority rule.”
County officials said the other three black granite signs, which are also inscribed with gold leaf lettering, could be installed over three more entrances at the three-story courthouse this week.
Tuesday’s ceremony was the culmination of a eight-month drive inspired by a similar move at the Putnam County Courthouse in Cookeville in November. The Anderson County signs were approved this spring after five public meetings with county commissioners and hours of debate that focused on the proper design; questions of legal liability; whether to allow other mottos, including clearly secular slogans; and adequately protecting the separation between church and state.
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. He said 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.
Supporters have cited the use of the phrase on U.S. money, on federal buildings in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., and the frequent use of other phrases that reference God, including in the Pledge of Allegiance. They have said the proposal was constitutional.
They rejected objections to the signs based on the separation between church and state at Tuesday’s half-hour church-like ceremony, which featured four pastors giving short speeches sandwiched between opening and closing prayers.
Mike Thompson, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in Clinton, said the separation is not found in the U.S. Constitution, and it is meant to protect churches from governmental inference. The separation is often misunderstood, Thompson said.
“We do not separate God from government,” he said. “Separation of church and state really has nothing to do with whether or not we acknowledge God as a nation and as a people.”
Supporters said pastors weren’t the only ones who supported the signs.
“I am so proud of all the Anderson County people for standing up for what you believe in,” former Oak Ridge Mayor Kathy Moore said. “America was formed on God.”
The installation of the first sign on Monday was completed at about 11 p.m., hours behind schedule after a series of setbacks that included a hydraulic hose that popped off a scissors lift and a drill that ran into rebar in the rock-solid courthouse walls.
The Anderson County Mayor’s Office emphasized that the county government did not organize Tuesday’s ceremony.
Still, in a brief speech that lasted less than a minute, Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank told the assembled residents, elected officials, and government employees that she was proud of them.
“You have shown what you the people can do when you petition the government for what you want done, and what you want to accomplish,” Frank said. “I challenge you not to stop here.”
Lynn Bryge, who owns Active Electric in Oak Ridge, led the drive to install the signs. He was inspired by the decision to adorn the Putnam County Courthouse with the national motto last year and helped form a committee of private citizens that raised $4,812 for the signs through private donations.
“I thought it would be an excellent thing to do here in Anderson County,” Byrge said. “Rather than divide, pull the county tighter, and it did.”
“It was a small minority that opposed it,” Byrge said. “But the far, far majority approved it.”