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She wants a higher power at City Hall

Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD -- Next time you see God in City Hall, you might have Jacquie Sullivan to thank -- or blame, depending on your point of view.

Five years ago, the Bakersfield City Council member lobbied hard to get “In God We Trust” displayed over the city’s seal in the council’s meeting room.

In the years since, she has persuaded 25 other California cities, from Kerman to Compton, to do the same, sometimes over strenuous protests from residents who see the mounting of the motto as a backdoor effort to foist a religious agenda on local governments.

At 67, Sullivan is undaunted by people she describes as “wanting to remove God from everything.” Through her nonprofit, In God We Trust -- America, she aims to have the phrase prominently featured in all 478 of California’s city halls and every other city hall in America.

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That’s just the beginning.

Not long ago, Sullivan suggested to an evangelical pastor named Chad Vegas that posters saying “In God We Trust” be placed in every classroom in the sprawling Kern County High School District. Vegas, a member of the district board, agreed -- opening a contentious debate that is to be settled by the board Nov. 5.

Board President Bob Hampton, a former teacher in the district, said he’ll vote against the posters because they reflect a “spiritual agenda.”

“The spiritual side of students belongs at home and at church, not in the educational system,” said Hampton, who now runs a garbage disposal company.

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But some Bakersfield residents see no harm in a tribute to God on classroom walls.

“Most kids in Bakersfield already have that seed planted, but for the others, it couldn’t hurt,” said 23-year-old Malia Casarez as she headed toward her shift at a haircutting salon. “My daughter is just 9 months old and I’m already scared of sending her to school, with all the things you hear about.”

In a family room dotted with figurines of angels and flag-draped eagles, the diminutive, genteel Sullivan says she’s always surprised by the hostility over a phrase that Congress chose as the nation’s motto in 1956. To arguments that it was a product of the McCarthy-era “Red scare,” she replies that it was a comfort for a troubled country then and should, more than ever, be one now.

When Sullivan learned that the new $1 presidential coin has “In God We Trust” inscribed on its rim instead of its face, she was shocked and fired off an op-ed piece to the Bakersfield Californian.

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“That just doesn’t reflect the will of the people,” she said in an interview. “I’m amazed that this could have happened, especially on the president’s watch.”

Though her nonprofit’s board includes well-known Republican political consultant Mark Abernathy and local Christian broadcaster Dan Schaffer, Sullivan casts her effort as neither political nor religious: “ ‘In God We Trust’ is the perfect expression of what it takes to be a good American,” she says, “because from my perspective as a believer, patriotism means love of God and love of country.”

Vegas agrees completely. The 34-year-old minister said the classroom posters would “send a huge message to students: We’d tell them the schools in this district are not afraid of the word ‘God’ or the concept of God, and that they don’t have to be either.”

Shortly after he became a board member last year, Vegas succeeded in renaming the district’s winter and spring breaks as Christmas recess and Easter recess. Hampton cast the only dissenting vote.

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Vegas said he has received overwhelmingly positive reaction to his current proposal. In a radio interview, he described opponents, who include a couple of fellow board members and the local newspaper’s editorial board, as “a group of liberal secular atheists who hate God, who are not patriotic.”

He has since backed away from that description, but contends that the newspaper, which ran an editorial headlined “In Chad We Doubt,” and other elements of Bakersfield’s “aristocracy” do not understand the area’s conservatism.

“A lot of people move here because it’s a more conservative, family-oriented, faith-oriented place, and the aristocracy doesn’t get it,” he said.

If Vegas’ proposal passes, Sullivan’s organization will buy the posters from the American Family Assn., an influential conservative group that offers a step-by-step online guide to “getting the National Motto of the United States of America in local public school classrooms.”

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Vegas and Sullivan say that, beyond purchasing posters, they have no connection with the group.

In many city halls, the “In God We Trust” effort has proceeded smoothly. Some have mounted the motto on plaques, while others have placed the words over the council dais or even made the phrase a part of their city seal.

In a promotional packet sent to every city clerk in California, Sullivan includes a letter from attorney Brad Dacus of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, offering free legal counsel in the unlikely event of a lawsuit.

No lawsuit has been filed. Numerous courts have held that “In God We Trust,” a fixture on U.S. currency and in many public buildings, carries no unconstitutional religious baggage. A number of states have allowed or required its posting in schools.

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In Oklahoma, Americans United for Separation of Church and State distributed “E Pluribus Unum” posters rather than “bring another acrimonious lawsuit into the courts that may not have much chance of winning,” said spokesman Rob Boston.

In most of what Sullivan calls her “Yes! Cities,” the decision was made swiftly -- although in Oceanside, it was an on-again, off-again campaign that took two years.

More typical was Hawthorne, where City Council member Ginny Lambert said there wasn’t a single objection from the council or the community on spending donated funds for an “In God We Trust” plaque.

“I believe all of us have a god except those who may be atheists, so it shouldn’t offend anyone,” she said.

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Sullivan drove down to Hawthorne, which calls itself the home of the Beach Boys, for the unveiling.

“She paved the way for all of us,” Lambert said.

A Bakersfield native, Sullivan followed an unusual path into politics.

A divorced mother of four, she was forced to rely on welfare when she returned to Bakersfield after her marriage ended in the Lake Tahoe area. Over the years, she became a successful real estate broker and gained public attention for her activism after her 21-year-old daughter, Joyce, died of AIDS in 1993.

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Even now, she visits student groups to show a moving 12-minute video on her daughter’s struggle and urge young people to abstain from premarital sex.

“At the end of the presentation, I tell them to get themselves checked out if they think they’ve done some risky behavior,” she said. “And if it turns out they’re not infected, I tell them to get down on their knees and thank God.”

As a council member, Sullivan is known for expressing consistently conservative views in sometimes rambling presentations.

Sue Benham, the lone council member to vote against “In God We Trust” in 2002, said Sullivan “truly believes in what she’s doing” -- although, in Benham’s view, the motto is “inappropriate for City Hall and even more so in the classroom. It’s a forced expression of faith, not patriotism.”

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Sullivan has heard that before and is unfazed. There are more city halls out there to adorn with the motto, she said.

When asked whether she’d tried such liberal hotbeds as Berkeley or Santa Cruz, she paused.

“Well . . . " she said. “You’re joking, right?”

--

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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