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HIGHLAND - Oak Norton has a dream for every Utah classroom: that next to the flag one day will hang a poster bearing the simple message "In God We Trust."
The words will be a quiet proclamation of the sentiment Norton believes all children should feel in their hearts.
"To me, our country's national survival depends on trusting in God," the Highland resident said. "If we turn from him and forget him, he'll forget us."
In Utah, he is far from alone. Just months after Sept. 11, the 2002 Legislature overwhelmingly approved a little-known law that requires the display of the national motto "In God We Trust" in all the state's public schools.
Now Norton hopes to take the patriotism lesson to the next level by offering a poster proclaiming the motto to every teacher in Utah, not just every school.
His enthusiasm, echoed by some other Utah parents and school administrators, is not shared by the nonprofit American Atheists.
"It's very sad when we're trying to establish a school system where everybody is welcome, where everybody is involved, when people like this person try to do whatever they can to introduce the most divisive thing in the universe - religion - in the classroom," said Dave Silverman, the group's communications director. "The single worst enabler for intolerance and bigotry is religion."
Norton's Web site publicizing the availability of the posters begins with two bold questions:
"Do you believe the source of America's blessings stem from a fervent trust in God? Is there a more important message our children can learn?"
Near the end of this school year, he and a team of volunteers distributed the posters throughout Alpine School District, where his child was in school. Despite having attended Highland Elementary for six years, the sixth-grader couldn't tell her father where the building's "In God We Trust" sign was located, though it was in the main hallway. That perceived lack of visibility drove Norton in his poster passion.
When Norton arrived, he was met at Highland's door by the PTA president, Erin Pritchett.
"The kids need to remember why we're all here," she said. "It's politically correct to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and out of school. This country was founded by Christian men as a Christian nation, and it doesn't matter what God anybody believes in."
Walking down the hall, the pair ran into Principal Reed Hodson near the school's current "In God We Trust" sign, a wide rectangular image of a flag and the Statue of Liberty. He supports Norton's vision.
"We're all about democracy and teaching how the Constitution works," Hodson said, explaining how he was frustrated by the push to take the "God" reference off money and the Pledge. He'd like to see the Ten Commandments posted in schools.
"Following the Ten Commandments leads to positive consequences in life," the principal said.
Hodson plans to have the signs posted in every classroom in his building next fall. It won't be an option for teachers, he said.
"They're going to be doing it willingly," the principal said.
For the sake of being consistent and following the law's guidelines, Alpine School District Superintendent Vern Henshaw suggested Norton reproduce what was already in the schools. If the new versions are dropped off, whether Norton's posters get hung up or not will be up to the teachers and principals.
"When teachers evaluate supplemental material, it should be used to enhance the curriculum they're teaching," Henshaw said.
Norton thought the poster already in the schools was too big to put in all the classrooms. Moreover, he wanted to add what he saw as a critical statement about representational government: "The National Motto of the Republic of the United States of America." So he raised money from everyone, including parents and legislators, to print his version of the poster.
"In a democracy the government gives you rights," he said. "In the republic, rights come from a constitution."
Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who helped hand out the posters to schools, understands why Norton wants "republic" on the signs.
"I think that's an important thing when one wants to understand the history of our country," he said. "We're not a pure democracy."
Norton's classroom dream is not unique to him. The American Family Association, a Mississippi-based nonprofit pushing traditional family values, has launched a campaign that could flood the nation with "In God We Trust" posters. It was their effort that initially inspired Norton.
Since 2001 when the campaign began, the group has distributed more than 400,000 posters.
"It's important for students and children to recognize our nation's history, the impact that God has had on our country," said Randy Sharp, the association's director of special projects.
Placing them in the classroom can "only have a positive effect," he said.
"When a child looks at the poster on the wall, it makes them think," he said. "Hopefully it causes them to reflect on the historical significance of God on the formation of our country."
Their goal is to show administrators that there's nothing wrong with hanging the motto on the wall, Sharp said, noting that it has withstood court challenges. Those cases did not involve schools, however, where some critics believe problems could arise.
"A school setting with young children, depending on how it's done, potentially could raise some issues" if it's used with additional religious overtones, said Karen McCreary, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "Constitutionally, we're sensitive to the interjection of religion in public schools because it's the right of parents, not the state, to teach children about religion."
According to the American Family Association's analysis, a group of states across the nation allow the posting of the motto in schools, although only a small number such as Utah require it.
The Utah law was born five years ago when Richard Siddoway, then a legislator, was approached by a constituent who hoped to get "In God We Trust" in every classroom. After 26 years as a teacher, he figured in many schools it would be one of a thousand things on the classroom wall. And as the national motto, it was appropriate to display in the building.
"I sense we're in a time where there's great cynicism and skepticism about politics, about education and about religion," he said. "The vast majority of people do believe in God and trust in God, so I couldn't see any trouble with it."
Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, voted against the 2002 Utah law, and said this new proposal had the potential to isolate and victimize children by pointing out their differences.
"It's heartbreaking when you push something into a school that really will facilitate singling out students for targeting of discrimination and prejudice and very possibly bullying and physical harm," she said.
At a time when bombs fall in Iraq and the future can seem uncertain, a majority of Americans do support the statements "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God," supporters say.
"It's the vocal minority who gets heard," said Pritchett, the PTA president. She believes that needs to change.
But the educational lesson that "In God We Trust" teaches is one rife with danger, according to the American Atheists.
"By posting 'In God We Trust,' it is misleading children [into thinking] we are a religious nation - which is a lie," Silverman said.
* JULIA LYON can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8748.
More information about the posters is available at www.ingodwetrustposters .com