The House State Government meets Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in the Pennsylvania Capitol (Capital-Star photo).
Reclaiming its perch as the arbiter of the Culture Wars, the House State Government Committee approved a bill Tuesday allowing school districts to post “In God We Trust” in classrooms and other prominent places.
And Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta had just one question — one that seemed especially pertinent after it became clear that there was nothing in current law barring districts from already doing just that.
“Why are we spending time debating this?” Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, fumed, shortly before the majority-Republican panel voted 15-10, along party lines to send the bill to the full House for its consideration.
Kenyatta who is openly gay, added that there were far better things for the committee, chaired by Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, to be doing on the taxpayers’ dime. Among them, he said, would be finally debating and approving legislation banning discrimination against LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.
It was a great point.
State lawmakers have so many playing fields they could be leveling, from passing a higher minimum wage and making college more affordable, to making sure that every Pennsylvania child gets a healthy start in life and then stays safe in school once they’re on their way.
There’s certainly no shortage of challenges for them to take on.
Rep. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, who’s sponsoring the proposal, tried to position his legislation as an exercise in civics education, arguing that it was a chance “to remember our heritage.”
But even that raises a question: Whose heritage? And for that matter, whose god?
Let’s start with Kenyatta, who’s Black, and only a generation or two removed from a very different America, one whose promise was largely foreclosed to earlier generations of Black Americans.
At the time Congress formally adopted “In God We Trust,” as the national motto, in 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education, desegregating America’s schools, was just two years gone. It would be another eight years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.
And it would be another year before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed full electoral participation for all Black Americans. And it would be a further three years past that before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned housing discrimination.
It was also a nation in which women earned less than men — and, as the actor Michelle Williams reminded us so vividly during the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, that earnings gap persists, particularly for women of color.
“Next time a woman, and especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart, tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her,” Williams said during a widely shared speech. “Believe her, because one day she might stand in front of you and say ‘thank you’ for allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment, not in spite of it.”
This year, the nation paused to observe the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, during a time when it was illegal for bar owners in New York City to even serve a gay person a drink.
But it’s only been four years since the U.S. Supreme Court granted the right to same-sex marriage. But in Pennsylvania, it’s still entirely legal for someone to be denied housing, employment or accommodation based on their sexual orientation or gender identification.
And again, whose god?
While a majority of Americans believe in a deity of some sort, there’s hardly consensus on her nature.
A clear majority (56 percent) believe in the God of the Bible, according to Pew Research Center data. Just about a third (33 percent) say they believe in some kind of higher power or spiritual being. About one in 10 don’t subscribe to any belief at all.
As Kenyatta pointed out Tuesday, while there’s a fine tradition of spiritualism in American life, the nation was mostly founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and who were seeking to worship in their own way.
And, I’d wager there’s a good chance that the Founders would be bowled over by the rich tapestry of spiritual traditions, from Christianity and Judaism to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the other faiths we now embrace.
It was a point amplified by Rep. Wendy Ullman, D-Bucks, who noted that, without any historical context or accompanying explanation, simply slapping “In God We Trust” on the classroom wall, would read like any other mandate, from ‘Wash your hands,’ to ‘Don’t shove in line,’ that school kids are assailed by every day.
“This could be a normative message,” she said, adding that it’s definitely an “overreach” of government authority.
There’s a lot to be said for teaching Pennsylvania school students about the rich tapestry of their history, about the achievements — and the failures and mistakes — of those who came before.
And if Dush really is in earnest about paying tribute, he can embrace a slogan that reflects the United States as it is now, not as it was then, when not everyone shared in the nation’s promise. It even has the added benefit on being most U.S. currency: E pluribus unum.
Out of many, one.
And that means all of us.
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