Councilman Garry Bredefeld wants God to have a prominent place in the Fresno City Council chambers.
The councilman for northeast Fresno is leading a push to have the national motto, “In God We Trust,” emblazoned prominently on the wall at the front of the chamber. If Bredefeld’s resolution is approved on May 11, Fresno will become the latest – and largest – California city to vote to install the phrase in a council or board chamber.
Mayor Lee Brand said he will sign the resolution if it passes the council.
Bredefeld’s proposal has gotten some traction from religious leaders in Fresno. But not everyone who believes in God believes this is a good idea. Some clergy, as well as nonbelievers, are instead suggesting more secular phrases.
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Bredefeld was inspired by a national campaign led by Jacquie Sullivan, a Bakersfield city councilwoman since 1995 who founded In God We Trust – America Inc., which encourages cities and counties around the country to add the motto.
Bredefeld posted a YouTube video to drum up support for his proposal. In it, he described the council’s focus on issues such as police and fire protection, park improvements and economic development, but added, “this issue may be as important” as any of those.
“The more we’ve gotten away from God and faith and values, the more our country and society have slipped backwards,” Bredefeld said this week. “The point I’m making (in the video) is that the more we think about things larger than ourselves, the more we incorporate faith and consider God, I personally believe the better that all of us who are in positions of leadership and responsibility will make decisions that affect our community.”
In a letter to pastors to garner support, Bredefeld contends the motto “does not choose one religion over another.” The resolution states that no public money will be spent to add the words to the wall.
In God We Trust – America Inc. sprang from the Bakersfield City Council’s vote in 2002 to post the motto in its council chambers. Since then, 131 cities and counties in California have voted to do the same, Sullivan said. Nationwide, the total is more than 650.
I think anytime you honor the Lord it cannot be a bad thing, and I think anytime you dishonor the Lord, it cannot be a good thing.
The Rev. David Rutherford of Northside Christian Church
The city councils of Fowler, Huron, Kerman, Orange Cove, Reedley, Sanger and Selma in Fresno County already voted yes to include the motto in their city halls – nearly half of Fresno County’s 15 incorporated cities. Throughout the central San Joaquin Valley, the most recent to add the motto was the city of Chowchilla and the county of Madera in November, Sullivan said, which followed a yes vote from the city of Madera in August.
Bredefeld said he learned about the “In God We Trust” campaign earlier this year.
“It struck something in me, and I felt this is something we need to do,” he said. “It reflects faith, our values, patriotism and a sense of our history as a country.”
Sullivan sees the inclusion of “In God We Trust” inside government buildings as “really fighting for the history of our country.”
“We are a God-fearing nation, and God played an important part in the Declaration of Independence,” Sullivan said. “Reading our early documents for America, they had a faith in God. I love American history. It’s just very inspiring to be reminded of all that our framers went through, and we’ve got to do all we can to keep our country what it needs to be.”
David Rutherford, Bredefeld’s pastor at Northside Christian Church, is among those in support. He said the country is in the midst of a “cultural war” and that society has gone adrift. Rutherford said he knows everyone doesn’t believe in God, “but as a nation, we decided a long, long time ago that we would at least acknowledge Him.”
Leaders of the Interfaith Alliance of Central California say religious expression has a place in the “public square,” but not on the wall of a legislative chamber. Forty of the group’s faith leaders wrote a letter in opposition, which began by noting the alliance represents members from more than a dozen religious denominations, in addition to recognizing humanists and atheists. The group is recommending that if something needs to be posted, a better statement would be “Justice For All” – a sentiment also shared by all faith traditions.
By offering a counterproposal, we make a clear joining of hands for people of faith with people of no faith.
Norman Broadbent, co-chair of the Interfaith Alliance of Central California
The Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, a board member for the alliance, said he’s opposed to the proposal because “a cornerstone of freedom in America is the separation of church and state” and because he serves a congregation that holds a variety of different spiritual beliefs.
“For some, belief in God is central,” Kutzmark said. “Others have their faith rooted in humanism, which demands ethical living but doesn’t require there to be a divine being in the mix of things. To declare that City Council – and by extension, all of Fresno – trusts in God is to marginalize those who do not share a belief in God. The purpose of government is not to make exclusionary theological pronouncements but to ensure justice for all.”
Robert Ray, executive director of The Original Motto Project, a nonprofit advocating for the display of “E Pluribus Unum,” or “We the People,” from the U.S. Constitution, also wrote a letter in opposition to the City Council. “E Pluribus Unum” is a Latin phrase that means “from many, one.” The phrase appears on the Great Seal of the United States and was the de facto motto of the nation until Congress voted in 1956 to make “In God We Trust” the official motto.
The Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics is offering to raise the funds necessary to display the Great Seal or “E Pluribus Unum” instead of “In God We Trust.” The group’s president, Mark Boyd, said data suggests there could be 11,000 to 40,000 people who don’t believe in God in Fresno. He said a Pew Research Center survey shows around 3 percent of people identify as atheist, 16 percent as having no religion, and 4 percent as agnostic – defined as people who are unsure whether there is a God, or who believe God’s existence is unknowable.
It reflects faith, our values, patriotism and a sense of our history as a country.
Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld
Bredefeld points to repeated legal challenges to defend his proposal: “The courts have ruled that this does not violate the establishment clause for religion in the constitution.”
He added he has no interest in considering the alternative phrases “Justice for All” or “E Pluribus Unum.”
“No, I support ‘In God We Trust’; it’s our national motto,” Bredefeld said.