Law enforcement agencies in the South and Midwest are adding "In God We Trust" to their vehicles, drawing attacks from watchdog groups who argue that the move violates the separation of church and state.
"If it's on my money and it's on the state flag, I can put it on a patrol car," Polk County (Ga.) Sheriff Johnny Moats told The New York Times.
He wrote other sheriffs across the state urging them to put the motto on their vehicles.
"Just about every single day, I have another sheriff calling and saying, 'I've done it' or 'Can you send me a picture of your patrol car?'" Moats said.
Some officials say that displaying the motto expressed patriotism, while others contend that it seeks to counter the attacks law enforcement has taken in the wake of several high-profile shootings in recent months.
"With the dark cloud that law enforcement has been under recently, I think that we need to have a human persona on law enforcement," Sheriff Brian Duke of Henderson County, Tenn., told the Times.
"It gave us an opportunity to put something on our cars that said: 'We are you. We’re not the big, bad police.'"
But critics charge that displays of "In God We Trust" on taxpayer-funded vehicles bridge the separation of church and state. Congress declared the phrase as the nation's official motto in 1956.
"This motto has nothing to do with the problem of police forces' shooting people, but it’s a great way to divert attention away from that and wrap yourself in a mantle of piety so that you’re above criticism," Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Times.
Based in Madison, Wis., the group has demanded that law enforcement officials refrain from exhibiting the adage.
"The idea of aligning the police force with God is kind of scary," Gaylor said. "That’s the first thing you'd expect to see in a theocracy."
But Moats quickly dismissed Gaylor's argument.
"I don't know why an atheist is so upset about us putting up 'In God We Trust,'" he told the Times. "I'm not saying that they trust God. I’m saying that we, as the guys in this department who put this on our cars, we trust in God.
"And why is that a bad thing?" Moats asked. "Even if you don’t believe, you know God's all about good."
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