The time Schmidt spends in prayer, meditation, and reflection before her altar are intensely private, bringing her peace and a break from her demanding job as a nurse. Schmidt practices paganism -- a nature-based religion as old as humanity.
Pagans recognize many types of deities, and their ways predate Judeo-Christian traditions. Though no two pagans may worship the same gods or in the same fashion, Schmidt says, they share similar beliefs about the importance of caring for the environment, treating others with respect, and tolerating those who believe differently. "I consider all spirituality important as long as it does no harm," she says.
However, Schmidt says, harm was done when Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline hung posters featuring the national motto, "In God We Trust," in several county offices around Topeka. Schmidt's concern about the posters' message has led the Kansas and Western Missouri Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to formally request that Cline remove them from all public spaces and may result in a suit against Cline in a federal district court. The ACLU's case and Schmidt's concerns stem not so much from the actual content of the poster but, as the ACLU states in a May 24 press release, center "on the motivation underlying the placement of the poster by County Treasurer Cline."
The organization's legal director, Lisa Nathanson, says, "We are convinced that Ms. Cline hung the poster for one reason -- to promote her own religious beliefs."
Cline has refused to take the signs down, stating in a letter to Schmidt that the ACLU is a "God-less organization" and calling Schmidt herself "a very unhappy person."
The conflict began six weeks ago, when Schmidt saw a local news report about Treasurer Cline's placing the posters in the White Lakes Mall motor vehicle annex and in her offices at the Shawnee County Courthouse.
"To me this is kind of scary, having an elected official making a big deal putting up this (poster) in a public area," says Schmidt. "It's scary because it's the government involved with religion and it's not supposed to be that way.... The main thing I fear is I don't want government to be pushing religion on anybody."
Schmidt contacted Cline after seeing the news report, and Cline called her back. During their April 14 phone conversation, Schmidt explained her pagan philosophy. "I told her if she was going to put up a national motto, why didn't she use the original one, 'E pluribus unum,' meaning, 'From many, one,' which honors diversity, instead of divisiveness," says Schmidt. "Or perhaps 'In goddess we trust' to honor us pagans," she adds jokingly.
"I told (Cline) 'In God We Trust' was not my motto, because I did not believe in God (to which Cline replied, Schmidt says), 'Then you must not be an American citizen.'"
"She actually said those words to me," Schmidt recalls. "That's when the conversation just stopped. I don't take that from a regular citizen, let alone an elected official."
Following their phone conversation, Schmidt wrote a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal about her concerns over the poster and Cline's comment. The newspaper, says Schmidt, never published the letter.