It’s been more than two years since dozens of residents and outsiders alike spoke before the Mobile County Commission to weigh in on a plan to display, “In God We Trust,” in the auditorium of Government Plaza.
The measure was approved on June 19, 2014, but despite the county recently completing a $1 million renovation of the facility, the placard that spurred months of debate in the Port City is still nowhere to be seen.While Commissioners’ vote permits the display to hang in the auditorium, the effort was always intended to be paid for through private donations. When asked about why the display was still missing after two years, Commission President Jerry Carl said the county has done all it can.
“It’s not the county’s place. We passed the buck to them and they’re the ones doing it,” Carl said. “We got it approved, but we can’t use any taxpayers’ money on something like that.”
The “them” Carl is referring to is a grassroots movement that has pushed for “In God We Trust” displays in other government buildings throughout the country.
The “In God We Trust” movement was launched by Jacquie Sullivan, a city councilwoman from Bakersfield, Calif. So far, municipalities in 35 states have approved similar displays with assistance and guidance from Sullivan’s organization, including 17 counties and cities in Alabama.
Locally though, it was conservative columnist and radio host Pete Riehm who made the push to bring the national motto to Mobile. Reached for comment Thursday, Riehm blamed his own “procrastination” as well as other factors for the two-year delay.
“This came to us through a group out of California. They had a guy over in Baldwin County who was sort of leading that movement in Alabama, and he’s the one who got us on board,” Riehm said. “I’m not trying to pass the blame, but he and his part kind of disappeared, so what I didn’t really have was an entity to do this through.”
Still, Riehm said he plans to continue the effort using estimates that he’s already had prepared. Once they’re updated, Riehm said raising the funds for the display is something he could likely get together “in an afternoon.”
“At the time, we had several people say, ‘When you’re ready, let us know,’ and we’re talking something that’s less than $1,000 here,” He added. “I’m not really worried about that. This just really all boils down to the fact that I haven’t followed through.
Riehm admitted he missed a “great opportunity” to have the display affixed during the recent renovations to the auditorium, but he said the press “exposing his procrastination” has motivated him to move forward and finish the project with or without the guidance of the national organization.
While talk about the display has been dormant since it was approved by the Commission in 2014, the issue caused significant controversy at the time and its vote was preceded by more than two hours of commentary from proponents and opponents of the display.
Initially, the Mobile City Council was considering the issue before punting that decision to the county, which owns Government Plaza. Several Christian faith leaders and tea party members voiced support for the display before the Commission, while a number of atheists and members of non-Judeo-Christian faiths spoke out against it.
Some opposed to the display said it would almost inevitably be challenged in court, but those concerns are what persuaded the commission — at the behest of legal counsel — to prohibit public funds from being used to construct the display in the first place.
Despite her Christian faith, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood cast the only vote against the display. While she has yet to respond to a request for comment, at the time, Ludgood said she couldn’t support something she believed was “at best, a hollow gesture and at worst, divisive.”
“I believe our role as county commissioners is a secular one,” Ludgood said. “All taxpayers, regardless of their political and religious affiliations, should feel comfortable coming here to conduct their business.”
This week, Riehm said the controversy was “a tempest in a teapot,” and pointed out that those opposed to the display have not been any more vocal than its supporters in the two years since the decision was made.
“When it’s over it’s over. You’re talking about something that’s on our money and on courthouses… it’s all over the place,” Riehm said. “As for the opponents, this was an opportunity for them to go out and voice their beliefs just like it was an opportunity for me and the proportions, and I don’t begrudge them that.”
While Riehm didn’t give a firm timeline on when the plans for the “In God We Trust” display might see some forward momentum, he did say it wouldn’t take much time to raise the funds and have a design plan approved by the Commission.
Ludgood and Commissioner Connie Hudson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this report.