KNOXVILLE, Tenn (WATE) – A plaque at the center of the latest local clash over separation of church and state was moved to a new home on Friday.
The plaque, on display at the Knoxville Safety Building for nearly 50 years, references Romans 8:31 in the Bible saying, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?.”
Former Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith says the plaque has a rich history in the department.
“The chief back in the early 70s. He put that sign up in 1971 not as a religious statement, but as a motivator to officers who face the perils of the streets. Let them know that it’s not just their own strength, but a superior strength behind them.”
Mayor Madeline Rogero said the verse was displayed in an area where members of the public do not normally go. She said the city has been asked to remove the plaque by the East Tennessee Chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, non-profit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I don’t know what brought the display of this verse to their attention, but they objected to it on constitutional grounds. After reviewing the complaint and case law surrounding similar issues across the country, our law department determined that this display of this Bible verse does cross a clearly established line regarding government promotion of religion,” said Rogero.
The organization sent three letters to city leaders, the most recent on June 24 with a deadline that if the sign was not removed, the issue would be sent to attorneys. It was initially discovered by the organization when one of their members went to the Knoxville Police Department to give a statement regarding witnessing a car accident.
The plaque was moved Friday from the employee entrance, to a new space called the “Hall of Inspiration” where other quotes of motivation from varying religions would be posted.
“In order for us to preserve our traditions, in order for us to preserve our inspiration, we are creating today a hall of inspiration,” said Police Chief David Rausch.
This change came with much confusion and disappointment from the community.
“If you don’t share the same beliefs as someone else, just be accepting and go on. And I think to force them to take it down is not right,” said Wendy Fouse.
Others found the city’s announcement that the plaque would come down was a smart move.
“Well I personally think it’s a good thing that it’s being taken down because, just for the fact, it’s unconstitutional,” added Ashley Moore.
Many in the community still had questions about the constitution’s role in this decision. Lincoln Memorial University law professor Akram Faizer says the sign is a violation of the establishment clause.
“Presenting a Bible verse in a police station would signify to some people that they are strangers to the community, or that they are less than equal in a community of Christians,” he said.
Some wanted to know the difference between including God in our Pledge of Allegiance or our currency.
“’In God we trust’ most likely, as far as the existing composition of the courts could be concerned, would be considered sufficiently neutral and acceptable,” said Faizer.
Rogero said she also recognizes that a Bible verse that gives some strength and comfort may send an entirely different message to someone else. She said it may make them feel that they are not welcome. Though when asked about fighting the possible lawsuit Mayor Rogero says, “If I thought we had a leg to stand on, we would spend the money.”
In two days, one of the biggest arguments has been why didn’t the city fight harder. Faizer says it was a smart decision,
“I think it would’ve been an expensive fight that most likely the city would’ve lost.”
Religious leaders in Knoxville said while the sign moving from the entrance, to a break room of sorts, is saddening the community seems to be missing the point.
“Just because the verse comes down, does not mean that the verse is not true,” said Pastor Daryl Arnold of Overcoming Believers Church.
Pastor Arnold adds that now is the time to stand together, rather than apart, over a sign with just 19 or so words.
“Since there’s a big storm that comes from a Bible verse, let me throw another one at you…what the enemy means for evil, God turns around and makes it work out for our good.”
“With this issue, the most important of which is what we stand for. We are the main defenders of our U.S. constitution,” added Chief Rausch.
Rogero pointed out that this is the second time the Freedom of Religion Foundation has objected to items with the city of Knoxville in recent months. The foundation sent a letter to the city with objections to a plan to give a portion of unused land owned by the city to the Emerald Youth Foundation for a youth sports complex.
“In that case we reviewed their complaint and determined we can proceed with that partnership in a way that does not raise any constitutional issues,” said Rogero.
City leaders say this is not a restriction on an individual’s right to express their faith. Swanson says there’s a factual difference other courts have found using the phrase ‘In God We Trust.’
“The cases that have deal with that said, the In God We Trust statement, it has such a long history of use in our country that it has almost lost the particular religion promotional aspect to it,” he said.
Bishop Richard F. Stika of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville released a statement:
“Yet again, we have evidence of how our religious freedom is increasingly being eroded in our country and becoming a second-class right. Since 1969, when the department’s building was dedicated, the verse from Romans 8:31, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us,’ has been a message of hope to officers every day as they prepare to go out on the streets to serve and protect. On the surface, the words are simple. But they are also words that inspire a selfless sense of duty and courage in the face of adversity. In these times of growing conflict and threat, who would want to deny such words of inspiration to those who put their lives on the line every day?”