Council OKs decals 3-2

Public divided on decision to place ‘In God We Trust’ on police vehicles

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Council OKs decals 3-2After more than an hour of discussion, much of which expressed opposition, the Ridgecrest City Council voted 3-2 at its Wednesday night meeting to place decals bearing the phrase “In God We Trust” on Ridgecrest Police Department vehicles.

The item originally appeared on a June council agenda, but was pulled from discussion. A heated discussion still followed, drawing mixed support from the public. Opponents’ primary objections hinged on the lack of inclusivity and potential violation of the separation of church and state.

“Since I am the main sponsor, I would like to start,” said Vice Mayor Wallace Martin. In introducing the item, he held up a sticker bearing the American flag with the phrase printed beneath. He noted that decals will be funded by donations, not government money.

He said the phrase has been included in historically significant songs and anthems, as well as minted on official currency.

Bakersfield recently adopted the decals, he noted, as have several other Kern County communities. However, it was noted later in the meeting that Tehachapi recently voted down a similar action, 3-2, on the same objections that arose locally.

However, Martin said, the phrase does not pertain to a single religion, ideology or party.

RPD Chief Jed McLaughlin was invited up to the dais to address the issue.

“One thing I can assure you is that this will in no way affect how we serve the community,” he said. “We will treat our residents the same way we always do — with respect. This will not change the way we respond to our citizens or those who visit our great city.”

Martin invited religious and civic leaders of other communities that adopted the motto-bearing decals to express their support for the initiative, as well.

During the public comment period that followed, residents spoke mostly in opposition to the proposal.

Sarah Wersan said that although she is a person of faith, worshiping at Temple Beth Torah, she does not believe the phrase represents her religion. She added that she believes there is a movement afoot to make America a Christian nation, and that violates the religious freedoms upon which our country was founded.

Bob McDiarmid said that if the council feels compelled to adopt a motto for its police force, he’d suggest something more inclusive and applicable to the mission of the PD.

Gary Burgner expressed appreciation of McLaughlin’s assurance that RPD policies and attitudes would not change. “Jed has been, for many years, one of my favorite heroes,” adding that he believes Ridgecrest lucky to have such competent leadership.

However, Burgner took issue with Martin’s statistics showing that some 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher power. Burgner said he believes that the action was part of a disturbing trend in government that officials have to endorse a majority opinion in order to earn public trust.

“Stop trying to come down on the side of the majority. You probably don’t have the firm ground you think you have.”

“If its not going to change anything, than why do it?” asked David Burdick.

Mary Ann Arnold noted that we live in divisive times. “This is a little thing where I feel like we are going down the wrong path.” She said that patriotism should not be connected to a belief in God. She suggested that patriotism would not be enhanced by the addition of the decal.

Renee Westa-Lusk said that although she is a Christian, she still upholds the principle behind separation of church and state. She added that in the past, similar actions have caused conflict for first-responders entering volatile environments.

“I would like to express my support of the proposed decal,” said Ron Merrill. He said that it’s a reminder that the freedoms we enjoy are granted by God and that this belief is rooted in the founding of our nation.

“The word God is all-encompassing,” said Carol Wilson. “I think it’s a good thing to have on police cars. It gives people comfort to know that our police are trusting in God.”

“Please don’t do this,” said Scott Garver. He asked that his patriotism and service to country — which included two tours to the Middle East — not be confused with Martin’s proselytizing and disingenuous pitch for religion. “We all know what this is about here.”

Garver noted that the previous discussion about the casino, although necessary, was brutally divisive in the community. The present conversation is contentious, but also unrelated to the council’s role of governance, he said.

“This is a self-inflicted wound … this is not an appropriate use of the city’s time.”

Loren Culp said he was “very much in favor” of the action. “We’re going too far away from Our Lord.”

Mike Neel said that even a rudimentary scan of history reveals that Christian values are a foundation of our country. “In God We Trust” is printed on our currency, and the council presently opens its proceedings with a prayer.

Margaret Martin supported the action, and said the small line of people in opposition “do not speak for all of Ridgecrest.”

Councilman Mike Mower asked McLaughlin if the department supports the action. He responded that his officers have not expressed an opinion one way or the other.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens said that the First Amendment doesn’t say anything about the separation of church and state.

She added that the Founding Fathers did not intend for that separation to prevent them from acknowledging a divine influence.

She read a series of quotes from early architects of the Constitution that directly reference a higher power.

“You can clearly see they never intended that they didn’t want religion involved in government,” she said. “I agree with Loren Culp. Our country is moving too far away from our original roots ... it’s part of our heritage, it’s part of our country, we are proud to put it on our police cars.”

Mayor Peggy Breeden said she was conflicted. Although she expressed her Christian faith, she said it was not the council’s job to dictate belief.

“As someone said, it’s a self-inflicted wound.”

Martin made a motion for adoption, and Stephens seconded it. Ultimately it passed with Breeden and Mower dissenting.

Additional items of discussion will be published in next week’s edition of the News Review.

Pictured: Vice Mayor Martin holds up the decal that will be added to RPD vehicles. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-09-20