ATLANTA - Spurred by confrontations nationwide between police and the public, nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies in Georgia have joined a national movement that's reigniting debate over God and government.
In the last six weeks, sheriffs' departments in the Georgia counties of Berrien, Burke, Coweta, Douglas, Gilmer, Haralson, Paulding, Polk and Walton have affixed their vehicles with decals that say "In God We Trust."
The phrase, cherished by many, first appeared on the U.S. 2-cent coin in 1864, became the country's official motto in 1956 and was added to the paper money beginning a year later.
Georgia's sheriffs join a growing league of sheriff's departments in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas and other places that are patrolling communities in government-issued squad cars with the motto on their bumpers.
It's applauded by some and questioned by others.
Polk County Sheriff Johnny Moats was the first to recently initiate the placement of decals on squad cars in Georgia after looking for a way to express his frustration over growing clashes between communities and police.
He contacted the Georgia Sheriff's Association after he put a decal on his cruiser to tell the organization "what I'd done." From there, he sent out a mass email to peers across Georgia.
"Everybody's turned against the police, against God and against everything that I feel is good about this country," Moats told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I want people to know I'm a Christian man. I'm not a bad man. Christian values are good. ... I don't understand how Christians have gotten such a bad name."
Moats had the words put on his squad car at his own expense. Many of the deputies in the 77-employee department soon followed suit.
"I'm not pushing my religion on anybody," Moats said. "I'm just putting our country's motto on my car."
But that's not how some see it.
The Wisconsin-based watchdog group Freedom From Religion Foundation has gone after agencies in Missouri, Texas, Florida, Louisiana and other states. The foundation's leader, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the issue began cropping up about a month ago, mostly in sheriff's departments in the South. She says it's a "defensive posture" by law enforcement over recent officer-involved shootings of unarmed citizens.
"I can't help but feel that, given the national scrutiny and shock over these police shootings of innocent African-Americans. We're seeing the police wrap themselves in the mantle of piety, which makes it harder to criticize them," said Gaylor, co-founder of the Madison, Wisconsin-based foundation that has 23,000 members nationally, 75 percent of whom are atheists. The group has 425 members in Georgia.
"I don't think it helps matters by sticking God on their vehicles," Gaylor added. "You can be good without God. Don't confuse patriotism with piety. God is supposed to stay out of government."
The "In God We Trust" movement appeared to ramp up even more, Gaylor said, after the Aug. 29 shooting death of a Texas sheriff's deputy while he was fueling his patrol car.
Gaylor's group sent out more than two dozen letters last week to law enforcement agencies asking them to remove the words. The group also has received calls from individuals uncomfortable with the idea, including a sheriff's deputy in Missouri, where the state Sheriffs Association voted unanimously last month to put "In God We Trust" on every squad car.
Gaylor concedes there's not much that can be done legally: "It's really hard to sue over this because it's our national motto."
Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association said the issue will probably come up at the group's training conference in Savannah in October.
"I don't see the association saying 'do it' or 'don't do it.' That's an individual decision by a sheriff 's department," Norris said. But he thinks the Freedom from Religion Foundation's letter "will make some of them less likely to allow it to occur."
Participating law enforcement agencies insist it's not infringing on anyone's rights, especially taxpayers. Many of the officers paid for the decals themselves or the sheriffs picked up the tab. Paulding County Sheriff Gary Gulledge announced last week on the agency's Facebook page he'd foot the bill for the $6 "In God We Trust" decals for any of his deputies who wanted it.
"This is what the United States of America was founded upon and is one of the principles I live my life upon," Gulledge said.
Meanwhile, social media is abuzz. Law enforcement's "In God We Trust" movement has gained support from the public online as well as detractors who blast the movement as an invasion of religious expression on government property.