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Arizona Lawmakers Approve Displaying State Motto in Schools

AP Photo/Melissa Daniels

The Arizona state legislature signed off on a plan to allow Arizona public schools to display the English translation of the state motto — "God Enriches" — despite concerns that the signs might blur the line between church and state.

The Republican-backed proposal would allow teachers to read or display the state's motto, "Ditat Deus," which translates from Latin to "God Enriches." The proposal is heading to Gov. Doug Ducey's desk after passing along party lines in both chambers, including a vote from the full House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Secular groups and Democrats have raised concerns about constitutional violations or offending atheist children and their families.

"'God Enriches' is not the historical use, nor is that the state motto," said Rep. Athena Salman, a Democrat who represents Tempe.

Schools could be sued on First Amendment grounds, she said, as the Establishment Clause prevents government from endorsing a religion.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said religion had a place in the public square during the founding of the country, and so such mottos have historical connections.

"The idea that somehow our children are not going to live up to our expectations of being good people because someone mentioned God to them, I think, is one of the crassest, political things I've ever heard," he said.

Religious references in public sector mottos, oaths and documents are easy to spot; from "In God We Trust" as the national motto to "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Both of those are allowed to be displayed in schools under the same Arizona law that is proposed to change.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy that advocates for values and religious freedom-based legislation, said her organization supports the bill.

"This simply adds the state motto," Herrod said. "I think it's important for Arizona school children, for all Arizonans, to know our heritage."

"Ditat Deus" was previously the motto for the Territory of Arizona, and was carried over when it became a state in 1912. It's displayed on the state seal, which is emblazoned on benches, floors, doors and windows around the state Capitol.

Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition for Arizona opposed the proposal at a recent committee hearing, taking explicit concern with the English transition of the motto.

"We're talking about allowing teachers to put a sign on the wall that says 'God Enriches' with no explanation," she said.

Twenty-seven percent of Arizonans don't identify with a particular religion, she said, and 13 percent of those under age 18 identify as atheist.

Arizona isn't the only state with a religion-tinged state motto; the Americans United for Separation of Church and State cites five others. Florida's is "In God we trust," while Ohio's is "With God, all things are possible." Colorado's Latin motto "Nil sine numine" also has a religious reference in its translation, which is "Nothing without the deity."

So far this year, 24 state legislatures have introduced bills dealing with religious mottos, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Four have been signed into law, including Florida and Tennessee mandating the display of "In God We Trust" in schools.

The state Superintendent for Education, Diane Douglas, had her department sign on in support of the bill because "as a staunch proponent of civics, she would like Arizona students to know what the national and state mottos are and mean," public information officer Stefan Swiat said.

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