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‘In God We Trust’ draws suit

ACLU challenges framed motto in office

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TOPEKA, Kan. — The framed motto "In God We Trust" that greets taxpayers in the public offices of Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline drew a constitutional challenge Wednesday from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I've never run across a public official that has been so blatant in their use of their official capacity to promote their personal religious beliefs," said Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

Kurtenbach's organization filed a lawsuit against Cline in U.S. District Court in Topeka, and he personally served notice on the treasurer in her office in the Shawnee County Courthouse.

He paid little attention to the "In God We Trust" poster that hangs just inside the office's waiting area.

The ACLU asked the federal court to prohibit Cline, the county treasurer for the past 12 years, from hanging the posters in her offices, from making disparaging statements about the religious beliefs of one of the plaintiffs and from using county funds to promote her religious beliefs.

Despite the lawsuit, Cline said she has no intention of removing the poster and an identical one in her satellite office.

"I'm a law-abiding citizen," she said. "I'm pleased they asked for a jury trial. The polls are in my favor."

Cline will be represented at no charge by Joel L. Oster of Olathe, regional counsel for Liberty Counsel of Orlando, Fla. He described Liberty Counsel as a "religious liberties law firm."

Oster said Cline had done nothing wrong and said, "It's a good time to educate people on the true nature of the First Amendment."

The motto has appeared on U.S. currency since 1864. In 1956, Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as the nation's motto.

"The religious freedom of every one of us, including Ms. Cline, is tied to the enforcement of the wall of separation between church and state," Kurtenbach said. "When that wall is high and strong, religious freedom is secure in this country. Ms. Cline would dismantle it."

Kurtenbach said a federal court ruled in the late 1950s that the motto did not violate the constitutional prohibition against establishment of a national religion because its use on currency was so widespread that it had no significant religious meaning.

"It's up to us to prove her motivation was religious in nature," Kurtenbach said. "I think in Rita Cline's mind, if I could get in there a second, it's not 'In God We Trust,' it's 'In My God We Trust.' "

The lawsuit also said Cline had used county supplies to mail copies of a religious tract titled "Why Should Anyone Believe the Bible?"

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Mary Lou Schmidt and Darlene Stearns, both of Topeka. Stearns is a member of the board of directors of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

Schmidt had complained to Cline about the motto. She later told the treasurer she was offended by the religious message of the posters and asked that they be removed.

According to the lawsuit, Cline used her office letterhead to write Schmidt an "evangelical letter" that "questioned her religious integrity."

Stearns, the lawsuit said, "objects to the campaign of evangelism, proselytization and distribution of religious propaganda being conducted by defendant Cline in her capacity as Shawnee County treasurer and the expenditure of any Shawnee County funds for any of these religious activities."

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU's legal director, Lisa Nathanson.

Another controversy over displaying the nation's motto surfaced this summer in Colorado when the Colorado State Board of Education voted 5-1 to urge schools to post the motto in schools.

The decision on whether to post the motto was left up to local school boards.