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Flowers weren’t the only thing sprouting last month on some tree-lined streets in Whitemarsh Township, a well-to-do Montgomery County community.
Small blue-and-white yard signs appeared in front of dozens of homes throughout the township. Their message — Whitemarsh is “a great place to … live work & worship” — may not seem notable.
But the backstory is. Being a great place to live and work has long been part of the official slogan motto for Whitemarshians. The question has to do with worship.
Township supervisor Jim Totten, a resident for six decades, swears the word was part of Whitemarsh motto back when he was a child. So a few months back, he began calling for its return. The signs show support for his idea.
“Worship — whether you worship anything, our country was founded on this and it’s something that needs to come back,” said Totten, a Republican in his first term. “I think that’s what our country is lacking. And that’s why it is very dear to me.”
Late last month, the four Democrats who control the supervisors board took a proactive step, voting to keep the slogan as it is. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from folks that are very concerned that this could potentially come to fruition,” said Chairwoman Amy Grossman.
The dust-up comes amid the increasingly visible intersection of religion, politics and government. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order to weaken enforcement of a law preventing tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates. He touted it as a protection for religious liberty.
While mostly symbolic, the order is “probably going to act as an encouragement, if you will, for folks in the religious community to speak out more,” said G. Terry Maddona, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
Trump has already had that effect at all political levels, appealing to conservative Christians and evangelicals, and railing against political correctness.
One Trump supporter, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, has been a driving force in the Whitemarsh issue. He said he created the yard signs and helped distribute about 200 to residents. Gale, who lives in neighboring Plymouth Township, said Trump inspired people to speak out about their religious beliefs and denounce political correctness
“It’s a larger movement,” he said. “People are tired of all the political correctness. And this movement in Whitemarsh makes a statement.”
How much of a movement it is remains a question. Whitemarsh is a community of 17,000 people with a median household income of nearly $115,000 – more than twice the national median – plus at least three churches and a synagogue. Hillary Clinton won nearly 62 percent of the vote there in November’s presidential election, and the local government is controlled by Democrats.
Totten first spoke out about the township’s slogan in a local newspaper, which stirred the talk among residents and at supervisors’ meetings.
“This whole movement to take God out of everything is really kind of sad, personally, for me,” said Lisa Ramos, who has one of the signs in front of her home on Sheaff Lane.
But Totten never formally proposed to change the slogan, and he is not seeking a second term this year.
“It’s perplexing about why he’s doing this, particularly if he won’t make the motion,” said Grossman, the chairwoman. She said many residents she’s heard from have been opposed to adding “worship” to township signs.
Then there’s the issue of whether Totten’s memory of worship being part of the Whitemarsh slogan is even accurate. Township Manager Richard Mellor said after the issue emerged, officials went back and pored through records of meetings from years ago, looking for references to “worship” on official documents.
“We could not find anything in any old minutes of it existing or any board action on the slogan,” he said.
Bob Sague, a lifelong resident who owns a school bus company in Whitemarsh, said he was part of a business owners’ group in the 1980s that created the current official slogan to put on a permanent sign in the township’s Miles Park. The group went before the supervisors back then for feedback on the sign, which did not include “worship,” he said.
“It was never there,” Sague said. “And probably back in the 80s if somebody had said it, it probably would’ve been part of the sign. Because back then it wasn’t so political.”
Meanwhile, about 20 minutes west, another community has peacefully existed with worship on its signs for decades. Upper Merion Township proudly welcomes visitors with signs declaring it to be “a good place to live, work & worship.
“It’s been on their signs for “as long as anyone can remember” Bill Jenaway, chairman of the board of supervisors and a Democrat, explained in an email.
But it’s not necessarily an official slogan in Upper Merion, Jenaway said. “Just a statement.”
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