PHOENIX — House Democrats failed Tuesday in their bid to keep the name of the Almighty — at least the English version — out of classrooms.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said there is legal precedent to allowing schools to post the state motto which, as on the state seal, is “Ditat Deus.”’
Senate Bill 1289, however, would also allow the English translation, which is “God enriches,” on classroom walls. And that, Salman told colleagues, is an illegal religious reference for public schools.
Republican lawmakers disagreed, and the bill now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey following a 33-23 party-line House vote Tuesday.
The debate about the proposed change in law went far beyond the words and what they mean. It turned into a spirited discussion of who believes in God and whether some people were trying to eliminate religion in public life.
Existing state law has a list of things that teachers can read or post in buildings.
It includes the national motto, national anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, preamble to the Arizona Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Mayflower Compact. Also permitted are writing, speeches, documents and proclamations of Founding Fathers and presidents, published decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and acts of Congress.
SB 1289 would add the words “In God we trust” in explaining what the national motto is.
The bigger concern was adding the state motto, and specifically the English translation.
Salman said court rulings have accepted the use of the national motto as not so much a statement of religious belief but instead as “ceremonial deism.” That’s how the motto shows up on U.S. currency.
She appeared willing to accept allowing the posting of the words “Ditat Deus” since those are, in fact, the words on the seal. But “this bill goes a step further and translates the Latin meaning into ‘God enriches,’ which loses its protection under the ceremonial deism,” Salman said.
“This bill walks down a dangerous pathway of then having a religious interpretation,” she said. “And that puts our schools at risk for lawsuits.”
Salman’s efforts to curb the measure drew derision from several Republicans.
“I find it interesting that we have people who want to protect us from God at almost any cost,” said House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale.
“The idea that you interpret something from Latin to English all of a sudden makes something objectionable is really kind of silly,” he said. “The idea that somehow children ... are not going to live up to our expectations that they become good people because somebody mentioned God to them I think is really one of the crassest political things I’ve ever heard.”
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said the opposition left him confused.
“I would truly like to know how many members do not trust in God,” he said. “And I wonder how many members think that God does not enrichen our lives.”
Then he got more personal, saying he knows his “Democrat friends” believe in God and trust God. “Why you would vote to take that out of the state motto is beyond belief,” Campbell said.
Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said those comments ignore the fact that out of her 200,000 constituents “there certainly may be those who do not believe in God.”
“I think we want to be very careful when we use that term in schools,” she said.
There also are atheists in the Legislature itself, including Salman.
Rep. Eric Descheenie, D-Chinle, spoke about the forced conversion of indigenous people. He also told colleagues that he used to be a Christian “until I came to the realization of how oppressive the mind-set can be.”
“It has substantiated and justified slavery,” Descheenie said. “It has substantiated and justified acts of genocide.”
For that matter, he is not exactly pleased with existing law about the posting of the Declaration of Independence, pointing out it refers to the native tribes as “merciless Indian savages.”
Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, told Salman he does not understand the fuss about posting “God enriches” in classrooms.
“It’s an accurate translation of the Latin,” he said. “It’s a good translation. And so I guess I don’t see the problem that you do.”