WASHINGTON - Colorado's board of education, setting the stage for a new constitutional fight over religion in schools, voted yesterday to urge schools in the state to put up displays that read, "In God We Trust."
That is the national motto, and Congress' official approval of it nearly a half-century ago has withstood repeated constitutional challenges in court.
But the constitutionality of displaying that phrase in public schools has never been tested, legal experts say.
Two groups that seek to separate church and state immediately threatened lawsuits if any school in Colorado takes the board's advice and posts the motto.
As legal battles intensify across the nation over the display at schools and other public buildings of the Ten Commandments, the Colorado board's action opened a new field of constitutional combat.
The proponents of religious expression in public schools apparently have not been deterred by the Supreme Court's latest ruling barring student-led prayers in various public school settings.
The court also ruled in 1980 that the display of the Ten Commandments on public school classroom walls was unconstitutional.
In Denver yesterday, the state board's members bowed their heads for the chairman's recital of a Christian prayer, and then approved - by a 5-1 vote - a nonbinding resolution:
"Be it resolved, that the State Board of Education encourage the appropriate display in schools and other public buildings of the national motto 'In God We Trust.'"
The board chairman, Clair Orr of Kersey, who sponsored the measure and led the prayer at the meeting, told his colleagues: "How long can we remain a free nation if our youth don't have civic virtue? The words we pass on to our young can shape our destiny."
In a telephone interview after the meeting, Orr commented: "If we rob our youth of the history of our heritage, we are doing them a disservice. They need to know what made us strong as a nation."
The national motto, he added, "invokes the highest good," and students need to "know good from bad." To the threat of lawsuits against Colorado school districts, he said: "It's time our school boards stood on their two feet and say 'this is what we want.'"
The only dissenter on the board, Gully Stanford of Denver, said during the meeting: "In this pluralistic society, we must question the proclamation of one belief to the exclusion of another."
He said he feared that adherents of religions other than Christianity would be offended by the display.
Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said: "We view this as unconstitutional." She said her group "would not file suit after what happened today, but we would consider a suit after it is posted" in a specific school.
She said the organization would wait to see in what "context" the motto was displayed. That, Armstrong said, could be a key factor in determining its constitutionality.
She noted that the board's resolution does not specify what an "appropriate" display would be and does not suggest any system for monitoring displays to make sure they were "appropriate."
Even before the board voted, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy group, had warned the board of possible legal action if it approved the measure.
Repeating the warning yesterday, the group's executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, said: "Any Colorado school that posts this motto runs the risk of being sued. The best advice I can give the schools is to ignore this foolish and irresponsible action of the state board."
Contrary advice comes from the American Family Association, an organization based in Tupelo, Miss., that supports the display of the motto "In God We Trust" in "every public building in America."
The group says on its Web site: "Any objection that display of the National Motto is unconstitutional is meritless."
The president of the association, Donald F. Wildmon, is promoting the sale of a poster containing that motto, arguing: "The ACLU and liberal judges may not allow the posting of the Ten Commandments, but they cannot prohibit the posting of our national motto."
The Colorado board's vote was an echo of a conflict waged earlier this year in the Colorado legislature, where supporters of religious expression in schools pushed legislation to post the Ten Commandments in all public schools.
State legislative leaders withdrew the proposal, apparently because its sponsors became convinced it would not pass.
In debates on that proposal, as well as on the board of education's action on the national motto, advocates have argued that the shootings last year at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., demonstrated a need for a moral revival in the state.
Board Chairman Orr said yesterday that "Columbine raised the consciousness level of all Americans. There is moral decay out there, and people are wrestling with how we address it."
The board's resolution, apparently anticipating a constitutional challenge, noted that "the federal courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of the national motto and its uses."
The most recent such decision came in a federal appeals court ruling in a Colorado case in 1996. In that case, Colorado members of a Wisconsin-based group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, challenged the constitutionality of "In God We Trust" as the national motto and as a phrase repeated on U.S. coins and currency.
That court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, said "a reasonable observer ... would not consider the motto's use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an endorsement of religion." The Supreme Court declined to review the decision in 1996.
The justices have never ruled on the constitutionality of the motto or of its use on currency.
No lawsuit has focused on the motto's display in a public school.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.