Carrying a tote bag in one hand, Joe Herrmann shuffled to the podium to address the County Commission. Herrmann, an 89-year-old San Antonio institution, reached into the tote bag, pulled out a plaque and held it up for commissioners to read.
"In God We Trust," it said.
Herrmann offered on Tuesday night to donate the plaque, and plenty more like it, if commissioners agreed to hang them in major county buildings for all to see. Commissioner Ted Schrader thanked Herrmann for his generous offer and made a motion to accept the gift.
Then Commissioner Pete Altman spoke up: Shouldn't we be concerned about the sticky separation of church and state thing?
The question was enough to give County Attorney Robert Sumner pause. "I can't give you an opinion tonight," Sumner said, and the matter was postponed until next Tuesday's meeting.
Herrmann, a former county commissioner and patriarch of a prominent east Pasco family, put the plaque back in his tote bag and returned to his seat.
On Wednesday, he explained his reason for donating the plaques at his expense: "We've got too many godless people in this country. Somebody's got stand up to the ACLU."
As it turns out, the American Civil Liberties Union isn't all that concerned with the plaque. Placing the plaques in government buildings is a "minor" violation of the provision in the Constitu
tion that establishes the separation of church and state, said the executive director of the ACLU's Florida branch, but it's not worth fighting over.
"I do think it would be better and more consistent if something like this didn't appear in government buildings," said the ACLU's Howard Simon. "This in an intrusion, but it's a minor intrusion."
By Wednesday, the county attorney's office had concluded that there's no reason not to take Herrmann up on his offer.
"Our research is that it's not a violation," said Assistant County Attorney Elizabeth Blair. "It's the same phrase that appears on U.S. currency and it's the national motto. There's case law on this."
In Collier County in southwest Florida, the Christian Coalition has succeeded in placing 50 plaques with the "In God We Trust" motto in government buildings.
"We've had one complaint from an atheist and it didn't get very far," said Jerry Rutherford, chairman of the Christian Coalition in Collier County. "They don't have a leg to stand on."
Herrmann's plaques already are hanging on the walls of government buildings in Dade City and San Antonio.
"I have just always tried to do the right thing," he said.