In a split vote, the Tehachapi City Council voted Monday night against placing decals saying "In God We Trust" on Tehachapi Police Department vehicles.
The issues of religious freedom, patriotism, neutrality and safety all came up during the discussion, with three councilmembers ultimately voting against the decals, and two in favor.
“We all need to look to something that is bigger than ourselves. Our national motto is our national motto. It’s on our money and it's been established since 1956 and I believe in times like this, that it can help bring us together. It doesn’t exclude anyone,” said Angelo Frazier, Bakersfield Police Department chaplain and a local pastor. “As a matter of fact, under ‘In God We Trust’ there have been so many things achieved for all people, not just believers, but unbelievers. Because ‘In God We Trust’ is really a patriotic calling and an understanding that we all have to answer to someone.”
Frazier previously addressed the council on July 15 and offered to pay for the decals through his nonprofit so as not to spend public funds.
Tehachapi resident Suzan Mervau echoed his sentiment.
“It’s part of our American heritage, it’s part of us and I think one of the reasons why our country is in such bad shape is we have kicked God to the curb," Mervau said. She encouraged the City Council to put the decals on Tehachapi Police Department vehicles.
Others shared a different view.
“I am here tonight to urge the council not to print ‘In God We Trust’ on city vehicles. It’s a divisive motto. It says, ‘We believers know what it right for everyone.’ It separates us from them — those who have differing beliefs and different names for their gods,” said Tehachapi resident Phyllis Belcher.
Local police officers' stand on remaining neutral on social or religious issues was discussed, as well as possible litigation against the city and the addition of other possible phrases.
Corey Costelloe, assistant to the city manager, said, “On more than one occasion the Chief of Police was contacted by Tehachapi Police Department officers, who expressed concern about the decals, not from a religious standpoint but a concern over neutrality.”
The Tehachapi Police Department Manual 345.6 states that officers should not “endorse, support, oppose or contradict any social issue, cause or religion.”
Robert Ray, from The Original Motto Project, said that "E Pluribus Unum" or "We the People" should be included alongside the proposed motto.
Councilmembers shared their thoughts on impacts on the placement of the decals on police department vehicles.
Councilman Michael Davies said, “I don’t think I should be able to pass my beliefs onto people in this town. The officers drive city cars. They are not their own cars. If they want to put it on their own car, I think they are allowed to, that’s their private property. As a city councilmember, I don’t think we ought to make that decision."
Councilman Phil Smith said, “I understand everyone’s position on this and it’s very controversial. I believe in God, I’m Catholic, but at the same time... I believe that we should maintain religious neutrality and the separation of church and state is where we are at here.”
Councilwoman Joan Pogon-Cord said, “I would like to see what happens in Bakersfield with their decision, 'In God We Trust' and then go from there. My biggest concern is the safety of our police officers at this point.”
Councilman Kenneth R. Hetge and Mayor Susan Wiggins disagreed and voted in favor of placing the decals on TPD vehicles.
“There are certain things that we need to bring to the community. If it’s as simple as saying ‘In God We Trust’ on our police cars, we need to do that. Our society today needs every bit of help it can muster and if this simple phrase brings security and comfort to anybody who reads that, then so be it. It’s a good thing to have,” Hetge said.
Said Wiggins, “I can’t vote basically against God.”
Sanctuary city issue
Four City Council members declined to second, or vote to continue research on, declaring Tehachapi a constitutional Second Amendment sanctuary city.
At the July 15 council meeting, Hetge had asked about how citizens' rights can be protected from new gun laws, along with rights for people to carry concealed weapons.
Hetge on Monday made the motion to allow the city to make a minimal expenditure for an outside opinion. Other members of the council declined to second his motion, so it was dropped.
The cost of further research by Richards Watson & Gershon could be up to $5,000, according to City Council meeting documents.