LINCOLN — A contentious hearing Tuesday for a bill that would require the national motto — “In God We Trust” — to be displayed prominently in schools began with a practicing Muslim in favor and ended with a neutral Satanist.
The motto shows trust in not one religion, but trust in “something better than what we’ve achieved,” said Zachary Cheek, the first to testify on Legislative Bill 73. He was the only proponent who spoke on the record.
The last testifier, who offered satirical “neutral” testimony, said he was from the Nebraska Evangelical Church of Satan. John Skinner said the legislation would “open up an opportunity for us as well.”
The Education Committee heard opposition testimony for the vast majority of the hearing, however. Arguments against included that the motto is not inclusive for non-Christian students and that the bill would be a threat to local control of schools.
Courts have ruled that “In God We Trust” is a secular statement and not unconstitutional, said Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, who introduced the bill.
Erdman said the bill’s goal isn’t to put God back in schools, though he is in favor of that. The question is whether the national motto should be in schools, Erdman said.
Federal legislation declared the national motto to be “In God We Trust” first in 1956 and most recently in 2011. An unofficial national motto, “e pluribus unum,” translates to “out of many, one” and is on the U.S. seal.
Similar bills requiring or allowing “In God We Trust” to be displayed in public schools have been passed in at least nine states, six of those since 2017, according to Forbes.
Senators in favor of the bill thanked the opponents for their testimony, which was often heated.
North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, the chairman of the committee, at one point called for decorum. At another point, he asked Joseph Couch, 24, a member of Nebraska Secular Democrats, if he could prove that his great-great-great-great-grandfather existed.
“Yes, by being here,” Couch responded.
“I happen to believe — yes, I’m here because of God,” Groene replied.
Groene told Couch, “I don’t know your anger toward God or why you even care …”
“Senator, I’m not angry toward God,” Couch said. “I cannot be angry at God because I do not believe in him. It’s much like saying I’m angry at unicorns.”
Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said she was against the bill because of her Christian beliefs. If “In God We Trust” isn’t religious, she said, then it takes his name in vain. She asked if Erdman had considered using Nebraska’s motto, “Equality Before the Law.” He hadn’t.
Glenvil Sen. Dave Murman said the Sandy Creek school board wanted to put “In God We Trust” in buildings when he served on the board there. Fear of a lawsuit stopped them, he said. Some opponents said they would be more in favor of a bill that would allow, not require, the national motto to be displayed in schools.
One opponent, Donna Roller, said she was against the bill because it is controversial and a waste of time.
“There are so many other issues before this legislature, a budget issue,” Roller said. “And here we are arguing about our religious beliefs, and science, and evolution.”
Capitol Digest: New bill would give income tax credit after completion of firearm safety course
» Legislative pay raise. Nebraska lawmakers would get a pay raise for the first time in more than 20 years under Legislative Resolution 12CA, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha. The proposed constitutional amendment would set senators’ salaries at half of the median household income in Nebraska, with the amount recalculated every two years.
If it had been in effect this year, the measure would have boosted their salaries to $29,985, up from the current $12,000 a year. Nebraska lawmakers last received a pay raise in 1988, when voters increased their salaries from $4,800. Voters rejected pay hike proposals in 2006 and 2012.
» Filibuster fizzle. The Rules Committee withdrew a proposal to set a six-hour minimum for filibusters Tuesday, after a number of senators spoke against the idea. The opponents said they trust Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk to manage debate fairly.
Scheer has generally required six hours of debate before allowing cloture, but there have been exceptions. Backers of the proposal pointed to one exception in particular, a measure requiring that voters show photo identification at the polls. Scheer allowed a cloture vote after only a few hours.
On Tuesday, he said the proposal’s sponsor and opponents agreed to the short timeline because longer debate would have been unlikely to change the outcome. But Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha said that did not give senators a chance to speak about the issue. She and other backers said the proposed rules change would ensure full and fair debate.
Senators will resume debate about legislative rules Wednesday, when a proposal to end secret ballots for leadership positions is expected.
» Human trafficking. Four measures aimed at helping the survivors of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, and helping law enforcement bring traffickers to justice were introduced by a trio of senators. LB 516, offered by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, would provide that child sex trafficking victims are to be recognized as abuse victims and provided services. She also introduced LB 517, which would allow courts to impose civil damages on traffickers and buyers.
LB 518, offered by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha would appropriate $500,000 for use by providers working with survivors of trafficking. LB 519, introduced by Sen. Julie Slama of Peru would extend the statute of limitations for bringing charges against traffickers, along with allowing law enforcement to seek wiretap orders against traffickers.
» Transgender hate crimes. Nebraska’s hate crimes law would be expanded to cover crimes committed against people because of their gender identity under LB 504, introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. Current law protects people from being targeted because of their race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. The law provides for enhanced sentences in cases where a hate crime is proven.
» Gambling devices. Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced a bill that would clamp down on video slot machine-like devices that are proliferating in Nebraska bars and taverns. LB 538 would set stricter standards for what is a legal “game of skill.” Little enforcement concerning these machines is happening now because of the difficulty of determining if they are truly legal, or an illegal game of chance.
» Property tax relief. Several proposals were filed Tuesday. One would impose sales taxes on a slew of now-exempt services, like haircuts, auto repair bills and dating and escort services. Another would impose caps on property tax revenue sought by school districts, with exceptions for inflation or enrollment growth. A bill to change the valuation of agricultural land for tax purposes, supported by the governor, also was introduced.
» Pet proposals. Nebraska drivers could help low-income people spay and neuter their pets with new Spay and Neuter Awareness license plates, proposed by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln in LB 546. Part of the cost of the new plates would go toward programs that help with the cost of spaying and neutering cats and dogs.
Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood offered LB 553, under which landlords could require that potential tenants provide written verification from a doctor, psychologist or therapist that the tenant has a disability and needs a service or emotional support animal.
» Firearm training. Kearney Sen. John Lowe wants to give Nebraskans an income tax credit for completing a firearm safety course with LB 542. The tax credit would be available once every five years and only for people who meet certain qualifications, including being legally able to buy and possess a gun, not having been convicted of a gun law violation and not being on probation or parole.
» Crying in your beer. Craft brewers in Nebraska are already complaining about proposals that would increase the state’s excise taxes on beer to help reduce property taxes. One previously introduced proposal, LB 314, would hike the tax from its current 31 cents per gallon to $1.38, which would rank highest in the country, according to 2018 figures from the Tax Foundation. Tennessee, at $1.29 per gallon, now is No. 1.
» Flower power. Gov. Pete Ricketts and first lady Susanne Shore donated the 1,000-plus red roses that adorned tables at the recent Inaugural Ball to an FFA chapter in Mead. They were distributed to teachers and libraries in the area.