Watauga School District Will Accept Non-Theist Posters, but Principals Don’t Have to Display Them

A Humanist group in North Carolina has offered a matching donation to the public schools in Watauga County: posters that remind the pupils of the historical Treaty of Tripoli, which states, courtesy of founding father John Adams,

The United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.

The “matching” aspect is in the fact that the same schools recently accepted posters proclaiming “In God We Trust,” provided by a chapter of the American Legion.

Late last week, in a brief phone call, Marshall Ashcraft, the district’s Director of Public Information, told Cash Wilson, VP of the Western North Carolina Humanists, that the district will accept their Tripoli-poster offer.

Sounds good, right? But Wilson just got it confirmed that principals in the Watauga district will be under zero obligation or pressure from district official to actually display any of the posters.

This is what Ashcraft wrote Wilson this morning:

It is our expectation that principals will put up the posters donated by the American Legion and principals do not need to request them. We do not have the same expectation for the posters containing the excerpt from the Treaty of Tripoli.  State law specifically permits the display of the national motto in schools. Displaying a quote from the Treaty of Tripoli is permitted because it is from a historical document, but this quote does not enjoy the same status as the national motto.

We remain willing to accept the posters you have offered, as stated to you in our phone call last week, and principals will be made aware that these materials have been donated and are available for their schools. However, we cannot promise that they will be used. The use of donated materials is a case-by-case decision and we do not provide follow up information about their use.

I hope I’m wrong, but it’s not a great mystery which posters will probably be displayed, and which ones will be gathering dust in a dark closet somewhere.

WNCH does have a pretty good trump card up its sleeve: the very law that allows North Carolina schools to display the “In God We Trust” posters. The state’s General Statute 115C-81(g)(3a) specifically mentions the writings and documents of the founding fathers, and states,

Local boards, superintendents, principals, and supervisors shall not allow content-based censorship of American history in the public schools of this State.

Wilson has pointed this out to Ashcraft and says that legal action is likely if the schools choose not to treat the non-theist posters the same as they do the American Legion placards.

More as this story develops.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • 3lemenope

    WNCH does have a pretty good trump card up its sleeve: the very law that allows North Carolina schools to display the “In God We Trust” posters. The state’s General Statute 115C-81(g)(3a) specifically includes the writings and documents of the founding fathers[...]

    Laws, like ideas, have neither hilt nor handle; Every end is the pointy end.

    (Something I generally implore people to remember before they run off and try to get the law to reflect their desires. Nobody ever listens.)

    • Jeff

      Nicely said. It is the heat of the moment that unleashes acts without reason.

      • 3lemenope

        Thanks. I’m honestly curious about the down-votes. Not complaining, just wondering what the objection is to treating the law as a dangerous tool easily wielded by both sides of an argument.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          I didn’t down-vote, but linguistically speaking I don’t care for your comparison.

          Laws, like ideas, have neither hilt nor handle; Every end is the pointy end.

          It lacks impact because you are comparing one abstract thing to another. It’s not like you have first established that ideas are pointy and directionless. Whereas if you had said something about double-edged swords, then everyone could visualize an actual sword with a double-edged blade.

    • Blacksheep

      Great point.

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

    I would have preferred them without the added capitalization and underlining. The wording is perfectly clear without it.

    • Terry Firma

      ^ This, times one hundred. Much as I like what WNCH is trying to do, it is maddening what passes for graphic design in the world of atheism and agnosticism. Kerning, line breaks, spacing, choice of typeface, type treatment, punctuation, it’s all — let’s be kind and say “not very good.” That’s not to knock Wilson and his group (I’ve spoken and e-mailed with him, he’s a good guy). This is something that goes across the board in our movement. Disheartening.

      • Ann Onymous

        Remember the bright yellow billboards with dark blue type in Comic Sans? Owww…

      • allein

        The word “the” on its own line like that makes my head hurt.

    • http://youtu.be/fCNvZqpa-7Q Kevin_Of_Bangor

      I agree but being it is a favorite way Christians like to type they might just get the message.

    • Rain

      It looks like it wants to be in comic sans. We got a borderline comic sans here. Someone call 911. He’s about to go all “comic sans” on everyone.

  • Ashley N.

    Remember, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the state that voted an amendment to the state constitution that did away with all civil unions, therefore banning same-sex marriage as well as common law marriages. I voted against it when I lived there, but the fact that it passed made me sick to my stomach. My husband and I moved out of the state not too long afterward.

  • Blacksheep

    is the wording in treaties the final word on our standing as a nation? if so, we can also look at another Adams signed treaty: The Treaty of Paris of 1783, worked out by Ben Franklin and John Adams. Its first words are, “In the Name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.”

    (My personal opinion, by the way, is that politics often says the thing that gets a desired result – which is certainly the reason for the Tripoli wording).

    Also: in 1798, John Adams wrote, (after the first ratification of The Treaty of Tripoli), in a letter to the officers of The Massachusetts Militia, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    If one goes tit-for-tat, one will find more evidence for faith in our founding fathers than not. If the point is to prove that we were not founded on religion, better to stick with the court’s interpretation of the First Amendment.

    Being that it’s Thanksgiving this Thursday, I was also looking at Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 in which we read:

    “…To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…”

    • Johnee

      Nah. Everything that you are saying has nothing to do with being founded on Christianity. I see no contradiction in someone vehemently denying that the country was not founded on a religion, and then later professing his own personal faith. Two completely different things.

      The founders were a mixed bag; so what if some of them were men of faith? There was also Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine. None of which were traditional Bible believing Christians in any sense of the word (hello, AGE OF REASON?).

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        Don’t forget Madison and Washington, also almost certainly deists.

        • Blacksheep

          I never said they were Christians in the classic sense, I used the word “religion.”

          • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

            The most influential founders weren’t religious. In fact, many of them were downright unhappy with religion in general. In today’s parlance, they would be spiritual but not religious. There’s a ton of appropriate quotes to throw at you, but in the interest of brevity I shall hold myself to one per person.

            Madison-”Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”

            Jefferson-”And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”

            Adams-”This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it”

            Franklin-”In the affairs of the world, men are saved not by faith, but by the lack of it.”

            Paine-”Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst.”

            Washington liked religion rather better than the others, though he himself was a deist. However, he wasn’t down with the “Christian nation” thing either. He was, instead, in favor of religious neutrality in government; that is, entirely secular government.

            The United States is not, in any sense, a Christian nation. It was founded by deists and Christians, yes, but it was never a Christian nation.

            • Blacksheep

              Again – the topic is not “how religious are the founding fathers” the topic is: can one use a quote from an official document to prove it one way or another. My point is that you can’t, since both sides can submit official documents.

              Digging in to what they actually believed is a whole other matter – although I’m pretty certain it was not atheism but rather a spectrum of Christianity to deism – and almost always opposed “religion” – in much the same way Christ continually criticized the “religious”: Pharisees, etc.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Like I said, the vast majority of the evidence points to Christian-inflected deism. The religiosity of the founders is only an issue because you brought it up: I personally don’t care what they thought. They were complex men, sometimes great men, but they lived 250 years ago. Their words can influence us and teach us, but in the end we decide what we’re going to do. What they would have wanted is kind of irrelevant except that people keep raising them up to the status of infallible gods.

                If, however, you are one of those who thinks what the founders though is holy scripture, you will also note that they were very strong believers in separation of church and state, and were very much against theocratic intrusions into government (or vice versa, for that matter). Our current national motto must have them spinning in their graves. And you are arguing that because the founders were individually religious, they therefore intended the government to be religious. That, right there, is blatantly false.

      • Blacksheep

        The intent of the banner is to say that since this wording was used in an official treaty, it must somehow be evidence against Christianity. I’m showing another treaty (plenty of other stuff where that came from) that points to a faith.
        It’s not a matter of “so what” – it’s a specific rebuttal to the use of treaty wording as proof.
        (I’m not trying to prove the faith of our founding fathers, I’m saying that you can’t prove the opposite by citing wording in a treaty).

        • Abdiel

          The Treaty of Tripoli is used to discredit the idea that this is a christian nation, not that america is not religious.

          Of course the term “religious” can encompass a great many meanings, some of which are non-theistic (deism, pantheism, etc).

          • Blacksheep

            Correct – that’s how the conversation began (it shifted after that) – and the treaty of Paris that I cited can be use to prove that this is a Christian nation. That’s why I said that it’s a waste of time to try to use documents like this to prove a religious (or Christian) stance.

            Also, if you look at the history of the treaty of tripoli, it’s pretty clear that the author (not Adams, he just approved it) wrote what he wrote for the purpose of peaceful trade (money) more than anything else.

        • Johnee

          What Abdiel said.

          I still don’t get your point. That particular line is VERY explicit that this nation was not “in any sense” founded on Christianity. By extension (and common sense) that would include all other religions as well.

          I don’t know what you mean by “evidence against Christianity”. It was not the point or purpose of that particular statement in the treaty to get into a theological pissing match. It simply made the point that we are not founded on the Christian religion. Period. That’s what most of us here are trying to say.

    • Stephen Rowley

      The first amendment and secularism it leads too is not about attacking the religious, its about protecting the religious, it protects different religion and sects from the type of persecution that went on in Europe. such as the Protestants vs catholic that went on for centuries in Britain.

      • Jeff

        Exactly. The issue is the balance between protecting from persecution (and defining what is truly persecution and what is PERCEIVED as persecution) and protecting those of different beliefs (or lack thereof) from having to participate in a belief.

  • Matt Potter

    Ashcraft wrote, ” Displaying a quote from the Treaty of Tripoli is permitted because it is from a historical document, but this quote does not enjoy the same
    status as the national motto.”

    The state general statute he is referencing reads,
    “Local boards of education shall allow and may encourage any public school teacher or administrator tread or post in a public school building, classroom, or event, excerpts or portions of writings, documents, and records that reflect the history of the United States, including, but not limited to, (i) the preamble to the North Carolina Constitution, (ii) the Declaration of Independence, (iii) the United
    States Constitution, (iv) the Mayflower Compact, (v) the national motto, (vi)
    the National Anthem, (vii) the Pledge of Allegiance, (viii) the writings,
    speeches, documents, and proclamations of the founding fathers and Presidents of the United States, (ix) decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States,and (x) acts of the Congress of the United States, including the published text of the Congressional Record.”

    Perhaps Ashcraft needs to brush up on his reading comprehension and history as the Treaty of Tripoli is a document signed by President John Adams who was also a founding father. Perhaps if he had read further than number 5 in the statute he would had noticed number 8.

    • UWIR

      “tread or post in a public school building”

      *to read

      And the IGWT posters are not in accordance with that statute. The statute says that posters should reflect the history of the United States. The IGWT posters speak in the present tense, and is not presented as a quote, but a statement by the school. The Tripoli posters, on the other hand, clearly put the quote in quote marks.

  • Neko

    This is a great idea, but the billboard needs a redesign.

    [delete: I see that this issue has already been addressed. What Matt and Terry said.]

    • Guest

      It’s a poster, not a billboard. Not a well-designed poster, still, but it won’t be driven past at 80 mph.

      • Neko

        Right! Trying to multitask here. My apologies.

  • Jasper

    While the “In God we Trust” is legitimately part of U.S. history, selectively presenting information on history to infer a religious preference, isn’t, an action of historical education – it’s an act of religious entanglement.

    • Blacksheep

      You said in part what I’m trying to say, but much more clearly.

  • A3Kr0n

    I hate it when students get dragged into these things.

  • feekoningin

    It seems to me we have a problem of equal access. In the case of towns that allow 10 Commandments, Christmas decorations or other religious paraphernalia, there’s a explicitly stated right for equal displays by other faiths. I think that should be true here, too. If “In God We Trust” is posted, the Tripoli quote should be posted next to it. That said, it doesn’t ensure the youngsters will make the intellectual leap.

  • imjustasteph

    I don’t think there is an argument there. If the two posters were student-made and only one was allowed to be displayed, that would be content based censorship, but I don’t think it is when the items are donated by outside parties and the individual school principals get to request them, or choose not to.


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