Fresno is the latest – and largest – city in California to give God a prominent place in its City Hall, as the City Council unanimously approved a resolution to add the national motto “In God We Trust” to the wall behind the dais in the council chamber.
The vote was 6-0 Thursday, with Councilman Oliver Baines absent.
Council members took up a proposal by District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld, who said he was inspired by a national movement begun in 2002 by Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan. She appeared before the council to seek its backing for Bredefeld’s measure.
In Fresno County, the cities of Fowler, Huron, Kerman, Orange Cove, Reedley, Sanger and Selma are among more than 130 cities and county governments that have voted to include the motto in their chambers. Nationally, about 650 cities and counties have done the same.
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Bredefeld said his proposal “is not about choosing one religion over another; I would never support that.” But, he added, “because there is a vocal minority that wants to take God out of our beliefs, we shouldn’t be silent about that. … For too long, a silent majority has allowed a vocal minority to silence them.”
The overflow crowd of several hundred people jammed into both the lower and upper levels of the council chamber for the debate. Dozens carried signs of support for the proposal by Bredefeld; others wore T-shirts with the motto printed on them. Most of those in the audience favored the motto, but there were some opposed to putting the phrase in the government chamber.
Among those who spoke in support was former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry. He reminded the council how trust in God was a benchmark for American leaders through the nation’s history. “A reliance upon God was in our founding documents,” Autry said, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. “Right now this country is the most divided it’s been in my lifetime. You have an opportunity to make ‘In God We Trust not a divisive thing, but a unifying thing.”
(Fact check: According to several online references, including usconstitution.net, the word “God” is not in the Constitution.)
Unity, however, was not easily evident in the chamber. The number of speakers during more than an hour of public comment was nearly evenly divided – 24 in support of Bredefeld’s resolution, 23 opposed. Each person who spoke in support of the measure drew enthusiastic applause, while applause for those opposed was much smaller.
In recent weeks, Bredefeld was working hard to garner support, making appearances on conservative talk radio, sending letters to pastors of local church congregations and producing a YouTube video to boost the proposal. Among those who spoke Thursday to back Bredefeld were Cornerstone Church pastor Jim Franklin and Rabbi Mendel Zirkind of the Chabad of Fresno.
Several speakers said it was necessary for the City Council to install the motto on the wall to restore a sense of moral values in the community. “A moral vacuum exists in our country because we have a lack of moral leadership,” said Rick Nadeau of Fresno.
Another Fresnan, Paul Singer, asked the council members to “remember that God put you there as leaders. … Are you on God’s side or not?”
But not everyone who believes in God believed putting “In God We Trust” on the wall was a good idea. The Rev. Tim Kutzmark, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, said he was troubled by the resolution, and noted that several of the founding fathers cited by Autry and Bredefeld, including Thomas Jefferson, were Unitarians and “deists” who believed that God was a creator who then stepped away to leave humans to their will.
“What Jefferson would trust is creation itself,” Kutzmark told the City Council. “We trust the human rational mind and heart to make the right decision.”
Several members of the Unitarian church and the Interfaith Alliance of Central California encouraged a more secular and inclusive phrase such as “and Justice for All” from the Pledge of Allegiance, while representatives of the atheist community suggested “E pluribus unum,” a Latin phrase that means “from many, one.” It was the de facto national motto for most of the history of the nation – adopted for the Great Seal of the United States – before Congress approved “In God We Trust” in 1956.
Several speakers suggested that the motto represented a violation of constitutional provisions for separation of church and state and predicted that the city could be sued. But Bredefeld said the motto has withstood a wide range of legal challenges in federal district and appellate courts over the years. The Pacific Justice Institute, which has been involved in legal cases defending the ceremonial or symbolic inclusion of religious phrases or acts by government agencies, offered in a letter to the council this week to represent Fresno and its elected officials for $1 if Fresno is sued for approving the motto.
Bredefeld’s resolution includes the condition that no taxpayer money will be used to add the motto on the wall behind the large letters that spell out “City of Fresno” behind the council dais. Instead, private donations would be solicited to pay for the materials and labor.