When students returned to Kentucky public schools last month after summer vacation, they may have noticed something different: the words “In God We Trust” displayed in a prominent location in their school, as is now mandated by law.
Kentucky’s law could seem innocuous enough; after all, the words are the national motto and appear on American currency.
But its critics say it is part of something bigger: a concerted, nationwide push by conservative Christian nationalist groups to inject religion into society and chisel away at the wall between church and state.
The legislative effort Project Blitz is a coalition of three Christian nationalist groups, including the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer”.
In recent years, Project Blitz has pushed for state lawmakers to introduce bills like the “In God We Trust” one, as well as bills encouraging elective Bible classes in public schools. Over the last two years, six states have passed laws similar to Kentucky’s requiring the national motto to be displayed in schools.
But the national motto and Bible class bills “are like the canaries in the coal mine”, said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
“They’re indicators of a larger effort, which has now been spelled out clearly in the Project Blitz strategy to ultimately reach these even more direct attacks on religious freedom,” she said.
Project Blitz’s playbook, which is distributed to lawmakers, contains samples of cookie cutter legislation for lawmakers to introduce, as well as talking points for them to defend their positions. But in the playbook, the national motto and Bible class bills are only the first steps. Additional pieces of legislation include things like a proclamation of a Christian Heritage Week as well as legislation encouraging discrimination based on gender and sexual identity, such as a resolution “establishing public policy favoring adoption by intact, heterosexual, marriage-based families” and another “favoring intimate sexual relations only between married, heterosexual couples”.
Americans United says there were 76 bills inspired by Project Blitz introduced in 26 state legislatures in 2018.
Colin McNamara, an American Humanist Society staff attorney, calls Project Blitz “a conspiracy with receipts”.
“It’s redefining religious liberty. It’s weaponizing religious liberty. It’s turning religious liberty into an unfettered right to discriminate,” he said. “The end goal of that is by doing that, you marginalize those groups that they don’t want to interact with and you entrench Christian nationalism and Christian privilege.”
Christian nationalism goes mainstream
For Christian nationalists, Kentucky is an attractive beachhead, a place where powerful politicians are allies and where the population can be sympathetic. This is a state where it is not uncommon for prayers to be read at high school graduations. It is a state whose Republican governor, Matt Bevin, has encouraged “each and every” student in the state to participate in a “Bring Your Bible To School Day”. It is the same Kentucky where the county clerk Kim Davis became a cause celebre for the Christian right after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2015.
In Kentucky, a Bible class bill and a national motto bill have been signed into law in recent years.
Non-proselytising courses on the Bible were never forbidden in the country – and indeed, many schools in Kentucky and other states had Bible courses before any such law was passed. Kentucky’s law, like others, called for the creation of state regulations for schools that wanted to offer such a course. But when these bills get signed into law, they are often painted as the end of a prohibition.
In endorsing Bible class bills this year, Trump seemed to amplify the sentiment that a prohibition was ending, tweeting: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
McNamara says people like Trump and Bevin have made Christian nationalism – “the belief that this nation is and ought to be Christian”, as he puts it – mainstream at a time when white Christians are a minority in America.
“That used to be something that was a fringe rightwing belief,” he said. But “it has become a rallying cry for the rightwing in this country now. And it’s become this grand project.”
In its playbook, Project Blitz acknowledges legislation like national motto bills are meant to pave the way for more ambitious goals.
“Despite arguments that this type of legislation is not needed, measures such as the ‘In God We Trust’ bill can have enormous impact,” reads one section. “Even if it does not become law, it can still provide the basis to shore up later support for other governmental entities to support religious displays.”
Bible classes running afoul of constitution
Bible class laws in Kentucky and other states require the courses not proselytize or endorse or disparage any one religion. But in practice, observers say, these courses are frequently unconstitutional.
Analyzing documents obtained through open records requests in 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union found Bible classes at some Kentucky schools were tantamount to Sunday school, writing: “Many public schools that offer such courses purposefully use them as vehicles to proselytize students and involve them in religious activities.”
The ACLU found that some classes were using lessons and worksheets taken from Sunday school websites while others used the Bible to impart life lessons and encouraged rote memorization of biblical text.
The Barren county high school teacher Todd Steenbergen’s class was flagged by the ACLU for an assignment after a trip to a museum that asked students to write a letter encouraging a friend or family member to visit the museum, focusing their letter on describing an item from a religious exhibit and “why the reader needs to appreciate this”. The class was also flagged for a worksheet the ACLU said was only testing students’ knowledge of scripture without “probing any deeper into an academic or intellectual understanding of the Bible or its influences”.
Writing to the Guardian, Steenbergen, who is also an adviser to the high school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and includes a Bible quote in his email signature, said he removes his personal beliefs from the classroom. He compares how he handles the Bible class to how he handles speaking about different presidents as a history teacher.
“I am quite confident that I teach in a way that abides by constitutional principles,” he said. “I do not consider my classroom as a different venue to preach a certain message. And, I am not a fan of certain groups/people that want to make it so.”
Teaching a Bible class that conforms with the constitution “is doable, but not easy”, says Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Dallas, Texas’s Southern Methodist University and an expert on public school Bible classes.
A lot of it comes down to training: a teacher may know the Bible, but if they have never studied it academically they could be prone to injecting their own biases and presenting parts as truth. Well-meaning teachers can also stumble upon curricula and course materials that were designed to evangelize.
“But there are definitely, unfortunately, some teachers who see [Bible classes] as a trojan horse to bring in their own ideology,” he said.
Concerns over the constitutionality of Bible classes can weigh heavily on teachers. At Anderson County High School in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the social studies teacher Corey Sayre pushed back against a scheduled Bible class he had volunteered to teach this year, eventually getting the school to replace it with a comparative religion class.
Sayre, a religious Catholic who goes to church every week, told the Guardian that while he believed he could teach the course within the confines of the constitution, it was something that would necessitate careful and constant attention. He also saw potential perils in teaching a non-devotional course.
“I knew that teaching this within the confines of the first amendment was going to necessitate a critical examination that most parents would not love,” he said. “I knew that I was going to get killed from both sides.”
Schools push back
When the Republican state representative Brandon Reed introduced legislation requiring “In God We Trust” be posted in Kentucky public schools last year, he made it clear that it was about getting God back in school.
“In a time of rampant drug use, increased school violence, and mounting cases of suicide among our youth, we need God in our schools now more than ever,” he said.
One year later and the words “In God We Trust” are now emblazoned in large, imposing letters over doorways and embossed on plaques in school lobbies.
But in some school districts, there are signs of resistance.
In Fayette county, Kentucky’s second-largest school district, administrators decided to comply with the law by displaying enlarged $1 bills, which include the national motto.
At Jefferson county public schools, the state’s largest district with 169 schools in the Louisville area, administrators complied with the law by hanging up small posters offering more of a history lesson than a proclamation.
“The phrase ‘In God We Trust’ first appeared on US coins in 1864, largely because of increased religious sentiment during the civil war,” small text reads on posters featuring the American flag and Statue of Liberty in the background. “The phrase later became the national motto and, in 1957, made it onto printed US bills.”
Meanwhile, the superintendent of LaRue County public schools – Reed’s county and the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln – told the Guardian that its schools were hanging images of oversized pennies, which feature the words “In God We Trust” above Honest Abe’s head.