National Motto ‘‘In God We Trust’’

2012-08-07 05:28:50

The phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ has enjoyed a long usage in American history, eventually becoming the national motto. Legal challenges arguing that the government’s use of the phrase violates the Establishment Clause have consistently failed.

In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote ‘‘The Star Spangled Banner’’ (which Congress would designate as the national anthem in 1931) while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The final stanza of Key’s work provides in part: ‘‘And this be our motto—‘In God is our trust.’’’ With the onset of the Civil War, many people urged the federal government to stamp the nation’s coins with a motto stating America’s trust in God. In response, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase wrote the director of the mint: ‘‘No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.’’ In 1864, the phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ first appeared on an American coin, the two-cent piece, and the following year, Congress enacted legislation that made it lawful, but not mandatory, for the director of the mint to use ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on all coins.

In 1907, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt did not use ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on some newly minted coins. Roosevelt explained his opposition to the use of the phrase as follows: ‘‘[T]o put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred matter, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.’’ Roosevelt approved of the use of ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on ‘‘our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls,’’ but thought its use on coins tended ‘‘to cheapen’’ the phrase. But Congress responded in 1908 by making it mandatory that ‘‘In God We Trust’’ appear on all gold and silver coins minted in the United States.

In 1955, at the height of the cold war, Congress went further and required that ‘‘In God We Trust’’ appear on all paper currency as well as coins. The legislation’s sponsor explained his rationale:’’

In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and to destroy freedom, it is proper for us to seek continuously for ways to strengthen the foundation of our freedom.... As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail. To remind all of us of this self-evident truth, it is proper that our currency should carry these inspiring words...’’

The following year, Congress officially established ‘‘In God We Trust’’ as the national motto. The House Report accompanying the legislation noted that ‘‘the phrase ‘E pluribus unum’ has also received wide usage in the United States,’’ but concluded that ‘‘‘In God We Trust’ [is] a superior and more acceptable motto for the United States.’’ The House Report noted that ‘‘In God We Trust’’ had been widely used not just on coins, but also on postage stamps, including the 1928 two-cent Valley Forge stamp that contained a vignette of George Washington kneeling in prayer.

On at least three occasions, lawsuits have been filed arguing that the use of the phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on coins and currency or as the nation’s national motto offends the Establishment Clause. On each occasion, a federal appeals court has rejected the constitutional claim (Gaylor v. United States [1996], O’Hair v. Murray [1979], Aronow v. United States [1970]).

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never squarely considered the constitutionality of the use of ‘‘In God We Trust’’ as the national motto or on American coins and currency, several justices of the Supreme Court have suggested in dicta that the phrase does not violate the Establishment Clause. In 1963, Justice William Brennan noted in dicta in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), that’’

the use of the motto ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on currency, on documents and public buildings and the like may not offend the [establishment] clause.... The truth is that we have simply interwoven the motto so deeply into the fabric of our civil polity that its present use may well not present that type of involvement which the First Amendment prohibits.

In Wooley v. Maynard (1977), Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for six justices, suggested in dicta that the display of ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on the currency did not violate the Establishment Clause because the ‘‘bearer of currency is ... not required to publicly advertise the national motto.’’ Justice William Rehnquist, in a dissenting opinion, agreed: ‘‘The fact that an atheist carries and uses United States currency does not, in any meaningful sense, convey any affirmation of belief on his part in the motto ‘In God We Trust.’’’ In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in dicta that use of the phrase ‘‘In God We Trust’’ served ‘‘the legitimate secular purposes of ... expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what isworthy of appreciation in society’’ and did not convey ‘‘government approval of particular religious beliefs,’’ while Justice William Brennan in the same case observed that use of the phrase ‘‘InGod We Trust’’ can ‘‘best be understood ... as a form of ‘Ceremonial Deism,’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because [it has] lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.’’ In 1989, Justice Harry Blackmun noted in County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989), that ‘‘[o]ur previous opinions have considered in dicta the [national] motto ... characterizing [it] as consistent with the proposition that government may not communicate an endorsement of religious belief.’’

In recent years—particularly after September 11, 2001—some state legislatures have considered legislation requiring or permitting the display the words ‘‘In God We Trust’’ in public schools, while Georgia has put the words on its state flag. At least one state supreme court—that of New Hampshire—has concluded that the display of ‘‘In God We Trust’’ in public schools does not offend the Establishment Clause (Opinion of the Justices [1967]), as has a federal district court in Virginia (Myers v. Loudoun County School Board [2003]). Similarly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has upheld the use of ‘‘In God We Trust’’ on the facade of a county government center (Lambeth v. Board of Commissioners [2005]). Other legal challenges will undoubtedly follow.


References and Further Reading

  • Epstein, Steven B., Rethinking the Constitutionality of Ceremonial Deism, Columbia Law Review 96 (1996): 2083–2174.
  • Stokes, Anson Phelps, and Leo Pfeffer. Church and State in the United States. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
  • Warren, Charles Gregory, No Need to Stand on Ceremony: The Corruptive Influence of Ceremonial Deism and the Need for a Separationist Reconfiguration of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause Jurisprudence, Mercer Law Review 54 (2003): 1669–718.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
  • Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. 1970)
  • County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)
  • Gaylor v. United States, 74 F.3d 214 (10th Cir. 1996)
  • Lambeth v. Board of Commissioners, 407 F.3d 266 (4th Cir. 2005)
  • Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)
  • O’Hair v. Murray, 588 F.2d 1144 (5th Cir. 1979)
  • Opinion of the Justices, 108 N.H. 97 (1967)
  • Myers v. Loudoun County School Board, 251 F. Supp. 2d 1262 (E.D. Va. 2003)
  • Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977)

See also Establishment Clause (I): History, Background, Framing