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Hot Topic Debate: Commissioners Vote 4-1 To Place ‘In God We Trust’ on County Building

Examples of the motto on other buildings in North Carolina. Image courtesy of U.S. Motto Action Committee
Examples of the motto on other buildings in North Carolina. Image courtesy of U.S. Motto Action Committee

By Jesse Wood

In a 4-1 vote, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners accepted a proposal by the U.S. Motto Action Committee to entirely fund the installation of “In God We Trust” lettering on the Watauga County Courthouse and/or the Watauga County Administration Building, both of which are located on West King Street in Downtown Boone.

Dissenting from fellow board members was Commissioner Billy Kennedy.

U.S. Motto Action Committee Vice Chair Rick Lanier, who has been traveling across the state recently to speak before municipal and county governmental bodies, appeared before the commissioners on Tuesday morning.

Lanier requested the backing and endorsement of the commissioners to vote yes to “proudly and prominently displaying our national motto” on either or both buildings. Lanier noted that 25 counties and 14 municipalities have already agreed to a similar proposal, and of those bodies, only three have declined to do so.

Lanier said that the motto is a “proud source of strength and guidance to many generations of America” and also stands on legal ground, protected by the first amendment.

Before introducing Rick Cornejo, a representative of the American Legion Post 130 in Watauga County, Lanier read a statement of endorsement from Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse:

“I strongly support and endorse Watauga County’s efforts to include ‘In God We Trust’ on the courthouse. This will be a reminder for everyone who walks through those doors that we as a people and nation should place our faith and trust in God.”

Cornejo said that his “biggest reason” supporting this project is that the “federal law and state law encourages us to do this.” He also noted that the local American Legion post was involved in securing placement of similar phrased posters in the Watauga County Schools buildings after being first denied.

The school system initially denied the posters in 2013 for fear of promoting religion after seeking advice from the school’s law firm Campbell Shatley in Asheville. The posters were later accepted for their historical significance under N.C. General Statutes.

Cornejo noted prevalent concerns about promoting religion to the commissioners.

“This is not promoting religion; it’s promoting patriotism,” Cornejo said.

Commissioner John Welch was the first of the board members to comment. While he didn’t take any issue with putting this on a county building, he said that the commissioners should consider a policy for mottos – whether it’s county, state or national – so everyone is on the same page, similar to the building-naming policy that was adopted when members of the community wanted to the name the Watauga County Public Library after Evelyn Johnson, the longtime librarian who passed away in 2013.

After Welch spoke, Commissioner Perry Yates made a motion and Commissioner David Blust seconded to allow “In God We Trust” on the two county buildings. County Manager Deron Geouque noted that the lettering on the Watauga County Administration Building would likely be “pretty tight.”

Hodges added an amendment to the motion that staff come back with a policy for mottos on county buildings and that the commissioners have the final say on whatever design county staff and the U.S. Motto Action Committee come up with.

Before the final vote, Commissioner Billy Kennedy said that he didn’t personally have a problem with putting “In God We Trust” on a county building because he is an active member of a church in Watauga County.

But, Kennedy said he is aware of the first amendment as it pertains to religious freedom and is also “big believer” of the separation of church and state. Kennedy noted that people many times don’t have a choice on whether or not to enter a governmental building like the Watauga County Courthouse, where the tax administration, register of deeds, board of elections, civil and criminal court and other offices are located, and some could feel uncomfortable with the signage.

“We need to be careful injecting God into our government,” Kennedy said.

Lanier responded to Kennedy’s comments.

“We are hope to other nations and other people because of our value system. We are tolerant of other religions and tolerant of other cultures. We are the most diverse nation in the world and we are because of those values,” Lanier said. “Should we lose those values then we will cease to be tolerant to other religions and cultures.”

Yates then read a quote of former President Ronald Reagan that was included in a U.S. Motto Action Committee pamphlet passed to the commissioners and press.

“If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under,” Yates said, quoting Reagan.

Kennedy then said, “You don’t have to believe in God to be an American patriot.”

Commissioner David Blust entered the discussion said it doesn’t matter if you put “In God We Trust” on a building or carry a bible with you everyday. Blust said that what matters is what you carry in your heart.

“I am all for this. I think it’s great. As for being politically correct this nation is about to crumble because of political correctness,” Blust said, alluding to a previous comment by Lanier.

After the 4-1 vote, Chair Jimmy Hodges chimed in, saying that he was a native of Watauga County and that the people in this county would overwhelmingly support the “In God We Trust” motto on a county building.

“I would also like to go on record as being, hopefully, one of the first to make a contribution for this cause,” Hodges said.