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Adopting "In God We Trust" as the U.S. national motto.

The United States was the first nation to adopt the doctrine of church-state separation, placing constitutional constraints on how much government may assist or endorse religion. Although the First Amendment provides that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," lawmakers have passed legislation to set aside a national day of prayer, insert the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, adopt "In God We Trust" as the national motto, and place those words on coins and paper money.

This essay explains the origin of this legislation, the litigation that resulted, and the judicial doctrines that regard the motto as more secular and ceremonial than religious. Americans continue to rely on two national mottos that exist in some tension: "In God We Trust" and E Pluribus Unum. Both appear on the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar coin. The first is exclusionary in the sense that it fails to take account of individuals who do not rely on a deity for protection or guidance. The second is more inclusive because it exalts the diversity of the American population.


American coins bearing religious inscriptions date back to the colonial period. The Carolina one-cent piece of 1694 bore the inscription "God preserve Carolina and the Lords proprietors." The New England token issued the same year was inscribed, "God preserve New England." The Louisiana cent, minted in 1721-22 and 1767, carried the words Sit nomen Domini benedictum: Blessed be the name of the Lord. Another Latin phrase on the Virginia halfpenny of 1774 translates as "George the Third by the grace of God." Later, after America had declared its independence from England, Utah coined gold pieces in 1849 in the denominations of $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 bearing the inscription "Holiness of the Lord." (1)

E Pluribus Unum was placed on U.S. coins in 1795, but was not shown on silver dollars from 1840 to 1873, or on half-dollars from 1836 to 1892. (2) The inscription "In God We Trust" first appeared on the coins of 1864. Later it was added to paper money and became the official national motto for the United States. The motto appeared on the 1928 two-cent Valley Forge stamp issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Washington's military camp. This stamp contains the famous scene of Washington kneeling in prayer in the critical days during the winter of 1777-78. (3)


Writing on 13 November 1861, the Reverend M. R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, offered suggestions to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase, who was about to submit his annual report to Congress. Watkinson noted, "One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins." With the country ripped by civil war, Watkinson appealed to Chase to devise a coin stating the nation's belief in God. Watkinson asked what would happen if "our Republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is ... the words `God, liberty, law.'" Inscribing this language on coins "would place us openly under the divine protection we have personally claimed." Watkinson regarded "our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters." (4)

A week later, Chase wrote to James Pollock, director of the U.S. Mint, instructing him to adopt a new inscription for the nation's coins: "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." Chase directed Pollock to prepare such a coin "without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition." (5) Patterns for the half dollar and half eagle in 1862 relied on "God our Trust," while a pattern for a two-cent piece in 1863 used the legend "God and our Country." (6)

An 1862 sermon by the Reverend Henry Augustus Boardman of Philadelphia proposed that the name of the deity be placed on U.S. coins. The coinage, he said, "is without a God." (7) That same year, Pollock recommended that the new inscription draw upon the motto "In God is our trust" in the "Star-Spangled Banner." The motto was familiar to the public, but Pollock thought "it contains too many letters to insert in the place of the crest, without crowding too much for good taste." For greater brevity, he suggested the words "God our Trust." (8) In 1863, he reiterated this recommendation in even more pressing terms:

We claim to be a Christian nation--why should we not vindicate our character by honouring the God of Nations in the exercise of our political Sovereignty as a Nation? Our national coinage should do this. Its legends and devices should declare our trust in God--in Him who is the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." The motto suggested, "God our Trust," is taken-from our National Hymn, the "Star-Spangled Banner." The sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country--it has thrilled the hearts and fallen in song from the lips of millions of American Freemen.... 'Tis an hour of National peril and danger--an hour when man's strength is weakness--when our strength and our nation's strength and salvation, must be in the God of Battles and of Nations. (9)

In December 1863, Pollock submitted to Chase designs for new one-, two-, and three-cent pieces, on which one of the following mottoes should appear: "Our country; our God" or "God our trust." (10) In a letter to Pollock on 9 December 1863, Chase responded positively to the recommendations, adding the following guidance: "I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word `Our,' so as to read, `Our God and our country.' And on that with the shield it should be changed so as to read: `In God we trust.'" (11)

Because an 1837 statute governed the mottos and devices that appear on U.S. coins, (12) nothing could be done without amending that legislation. On 22 April 1864, Congress passed legislation to provide for changing the composition of the one-cent piece and authorizing the coinage of the two-cent bronze piece. The shape, mottoes, and devices placed on the coins were to be determined by the Director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury. (13) It was upon the new bronze two-cent coin that the motto "In God We Trust" first appeared.

In an act of 3 March 1865, Congress approved the mint of three-cent pieces. The statute included the following language: "In addition to the devices and legends upon the gold, silver, and other coins of the United States, it shall be lawful for the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause the motto `In God we trust' to be placed upon such coins hereafter to be issued as shall admit of such legend thereon." (14) The bill went through the two chambers without debate or amendment. (15) Pursuant to this statute the motto was placed on the double eagle, eagle, and half eagle and also upon the dollar, half dollar, and quarter dollar in the latter part of 1865. (16)

Subsequently, a statute enacted on 12 February 1873 provided guidance for devices and legends on coins. One side would be inscribed with "Liberty" and the year of the coinage. Upon the reverse would be the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscriptions "United States of America" and E Pluribus Unum, and with the designation of the value of the coin. The figure of the eagle would be omitted on the gold dollar, the three-dollar piece, and the dime, five-, three-, and one-cent pieces. The director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, "may cause the motto `In God we trust' to be inscribed upon such coins as shall admit of such motto." (17)


After the election of 1904, Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design the inauguration medal struck for the new president. Immensely pleased with the product, Roosevelt compared it to the commemorative objects of fifth-century Greece, and especially appreciated its "simplicity of inscription" and "dignity of arrangement." In December 1904, Roosevelt spoke with Secretary of the Treasury Leslie M. Shaw about doing something to remedy the "artistically atrocious hideousness" of U.S. coins. (18)

In the winter of 1905, Roosevelt discussed the issue with Saint-Gaudens over dinner. Roosevelt wanted coins "like the Greeks," and promised that if Saint-Gaudens prepared improved designs he would force the Mint to stamp them "in spite of itself." Saint-Gaudens agreed to create new designs for the one-cent, the ten-dollar gold piece (eagle), and the twenty-dollar gold piece (double eagle). To duplicate the dignity and simplicity of the ancient Greek coins, both Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt agreed that inscriptions would have be kept to a minimum. When Saint-Gaudens suggested that the motto "In God We Trust" represented an "inartistic intrusion," Roosevelt authorized its deletion after a review of statutory policy indicated that the motto was discretionary, not mandatory. (19)

Roosevelt soon ran into multiple problems: opposition from officials at the Mint, the declining health of Saint-Gaudens, and a likely revolt from Congress. In a letter to the sculptor on 6 January 1906, the president referred to the obstructive attitude among agency employees: "I think it will seriously increase the mortality among the employees of the mint at seeing such a desecration, but they will perish in a good cause!" (20) By instructing the director of the Mint to reproduce the dies as quickly as possible, Roosevelt playfully suggested that he "shall be impeached for it in Congress, but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!" (21) After Saint-Gaudens died on 3 August 1907, his assistant Henry Hering carried on the project. Work on the one-cent piece was abandoned, but the Mint issued the new $10 and $20 pieces in November 1907, less than a month before Congress reconvened.

Roosevelt persevered because he believed that putting the motto on coins not only did no good but did harm, for it represented "irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege." The expression "In God We Trust," he said, "should be reserved for occasions that imply a certain exaltation of spirit." Any use that encouraged a spirit of levity "is from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted." He had never heard anyone speak reverently of the motto on coins "or show any sign of its having appealed to any high emotion in him." What he heard, instead, was "sneering ridicule." Throughout the national debate over free coinage of silver, with the ratio set at sixteen to one, the motto became "a constant source of jest and ridicule." Cartoons and articles used phrases like "In God we trust for the other eight cents," "In God we trust for the short weight," and "In God we trust for the thirty-seven cents we do not pay." Roosevelt had no objection to the motto appearing on national monuments, courtrooms, legislative halls, or in military academies at West Point and Annapolis. However, the use of the motto on coins would cheapen it, "just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements." (22)

To a clergyman who objected to the deletion, Roosevelt claimed that there was "no warrant" in law for putting the motto on the coins. (23) He may have been referring to the Revised Statutes of 1873-74. (24) For some reason, this publication included the inscriptions "Liberty" and E Pluribus Unum, but not "In God We Trust." (25) Yet, the motto had been clearly authorized by Congress, even if not made mandatory. Roosevelt conceded that "the matter of the law is absolutely in the hands of Congress, and any direction of Congress in the matter will be immediately obeyed." (26)

Designs for coins were modified but they still omitted the motto; protests and outcries came from many directions. (27) The Atlantic Constitution put the issue this way: Americans would have to choose between "God or Roosevelt." Other newspapers agreed with Roosevelt that connecting the name of the deity with "filthy lucre" came closer to sacrilege than piety. (28) The sentiment among religious organizations was mixed, but some argued (with a contemporary flavor) that the movement "to get God off the coins" reflected the same irreligious attitude that wanted "to get the Bible out of the schools." (29) One citizen published this piece of poetry in the New York Sun:
   In God We Trust
   Upon Our Coins!
   Oh, sacrilegious people!
   God is not needed in this nation;
   We have the great Administration;
   And he's enough for all creation
   Our Teddy. (30)

Public reaction led to the introduction of legislation to restore the religious motto on U.S. coinage. Rep. Morris Sheppard (D-Tex.) led the attack with a lengthy floor address on 7 January 1908. After reviewing the influence of religion on America, he turned his ire to the new coin design "which shows on one side a woman in savage headdress, on the other a Roman eagle in predatory flight--the one side a degradation of woman, the other a eulogy of war?" (31) Rep. Henry S. Boutell (R-Ill.) came to Roosevelt's defense, praising him for "good judgment, discriminating taste, and a proper reverence." Boutell reminded his colleagues of what Jesus said when shown the tribute money with Caesar's image and superscription: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (32)

The Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures, which received the bill (H.R. 17296) to restore the motto, discussed the wellspring of dissent following Roosevelt's action. Individual citizens as well as religious, secular, and patriotic organizations demanded that his order be reversed. Petitions urging that the motto be returned to coins were directed to lawmakers and their committees. Responding to these pressures, the committee unanimously recommended passage of this bill "in confidence that the measure simply reflects the reverent and religious conviction which underlies American citizenship." (33) Its subcommittee was equally unanimous in believing that "as a Christian nation" the motto should be restored to "inspire American citizenship," and as "evidence to all the nations of the world that the best and only reliance for the perpetuation of the republican institution is upon a Christian patriotism, which, recognizing the universal fatherhood of God, appeals to the universal brotherhood of man as the source of the authority and power of all just government." (34)

Roosevelt was furious with the public outcry and the introduction of legislation to reverse his decision. He regarded legislation as not only unnecessary but "rot, pure rot." Still, he knew the cards were stacked against him. He made clear to lawmakers that "if Congress wants to pass a bill re-establishing the motto, I shall not veto it." (35) With that assurance, the two chambers moved the bill through Congress with few obstacles.

Debates on the floor of the House of Representatives reflect the temper of the times. Rep. Charles C. Carlin reminded his colleagues that the motto was placed on coins during the Civil War, "when the hand of brother was turned against brother; when the minds of men were enraged, and the settlement of problems was submitted to the arbitrament of arms, the result of which no man could at that time foretell. The battle of Manassas had been fought; the pride of the nation in its various sections had been aroused; The North and the South were arrayed against each other in bloody warfare; ... The blood of America was boiling; cruel war had possession of the land." (36)

Language from lawmakers demonstrates the depth of feeling. Carlin said that from beginning to end "there was never any difference of opinion" within the committee. The committee's action "furnishes a lesson to the country and the world to the effect that this is a Christian nation, and that this body is composed of patriotic Americans who, regardless of party affiliations, fearlessly discharge a public duty when they are once convinced there is a duty to be discharged." (37) To Carlin, Roosevelt acted not only unwisely but "in violation of the spirit of the law as it was written." Yet Carlin acknowledged that Roosevelt did not attempt to interfere with the committee's deliberation, leaving the committee members "free to exercise their own judgment in the discharge of their duty as they saw it." (38)

Similarly, Rep. Ollie M. James stated that the "country is to be congratulated that our trust is again to be restored in God." In accusing Roosevelt of "a great mistake," James referred to the United States as "not only a Christian nation, but we are engaged in sending to foreign countries and to distant people our missionaries to preach the religions of Jesus Christ, and we want our money so that when this gold that you say is so good goes across the ocean and is held in the hands of those who do not know of the existence of the Saviour of the world, we can say: `Here are the dollars of the greatest nation on earth; one that does not put its trust in floating navies or in marching armies, but places its trust in God.'" For James, the motto "In God We Trust" reflected the language of the framers. Belief in a Supreme Being "is breathed in the Declaration of Independence, lives in the Constitution, hallows the oath we take at the bar of this House. It inspired our soldiers to fight at Bunker Hill, to suffer at Valley Forge, to triumph at Yorktown." (39)

Rep. Joseph H. Moore from Pennsylvania defended Roosevelt by calling him "a religious, God-fearing man," with no intent "to shock the moral sentiment of the community in the order which removed the motto from the coin." It was time, he said, "to rise and declare, even by law, that this is a God-fearing nation, and that Congress can do no harm in making that declaration emphatic." (40) Other statements reflect the sentiments aroused by Roosevelt's decision. Charles G. Edwards of Georgia applauded the restoration of the motto. He did not charge, as some did, that Roosevelt "is an infidel," but rather that he "erred, as all men are likely to do," and that, "like a fearless and courageous man, he has virtually admitted his mistake, and says if this bill is passed, he will not veto it." (41) Edwards denied that the question was sectarian: "The Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterian, the Catholic, the Hebrews, the Episcopal, in fact all churches, all creeds, who have a belief in God, are as one in the opinion that it was a great mistake to ever have removed this motto from our coins, and they are one in the sentiment that this motto shall be restored." He further insisted that all public positions should be filled with God-fearing men: "A man who is not sound in his belief in God has no right in high office, which is the gift of a God-fearing people." (42)

One of the few to object to the bill was Gustav Kustermann (R-Wisc.) who objected to the motto "In God We Trust" on coins "because I do not believe in any religion that in order to thrive needs advertising, nor do I believe in any person that always hangs out his shingle `I am a Christian.'" Confiding in God, he said, was a personal and not a public matter. His mother warned against those "who always have religion on their tongue, very frequently expecting to gain some advantage thereby. Thus I have no love for the man who has always one eye turned skyward while the other one is seeking his neighbor's pocketbook." (43)

Legislation mandating the use of this motto on certain coins became law on 18 May 1908. By a roll-call vote of 259 ayes and five nays, with four answering "present," (44) the House passed the bill providing that the motto that had been a feature of certain coins issued by the American government since the year 1864 be restored. The Senate passed the bill without debate. (45) As enacted, the statute provided that the motto "In God We Trust," previously inscribed "on certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed upon all such gold and silver coins of said denominations as heretofore." (46) Thus, inscription of the motto on American coins became mandatory.


After World War II, Congress engaged in ideological fencing with Soviet Russia by encouraging spiritualism over materialism and theism over atheism. From 1952 to 1956, in the early years of the Cold War, Congress passed a number of bills to designate a national day of prayer, insert the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and require the inscription "In God We Trust" on the nation's paper money as well as its coins.

In 1952, Congress directed the president to "set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals." (47) Other than recognizing the power of prayer in the nation's history, the legislative history provides few details on the political motivations behind this statute. (48)

There was no such vagueness in the development of legislation in 1954 to amend the pledge of allegiance. Instead of the phrase "one Nation indivisible," the language was changed to "one Nation under God, indivisible." Elected leaders were influenced by a sermon given by the Rev. George M. Docherty, of Washington, D.C., who pointed out that the existing pledge of allegiance could be largely repeated in Russia, which was also a republic and claimed to be indivisible. What was missing in the pledge, he said, "was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life": a belief in God. Docherty's sermon prompted Senator Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.) to sponsor legislation to insert "under God" in the pledge. Ferguson argued that the "spiritual bankruptcy of the Communists is one of our strongest weapons in the struggle for men's minds and this resolution gives us a new means of using that weapon." (49)

A similar position appears in a report issued by the House Judiciary Committee, which warned that American principles "are under attack by a system whose philosophy is at direct odds with our own." American government, the committee said, was founded "on the concept of the individuality and the dignity of the human being." The individual is important "because he was created by God and endowed by Him with certain inalienable rights which no civil authority may usurp." The inclusion of "under God" in the pledge would acknowledge the dependence of America on the moral directions of the Creator and "serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism with its attendant subservience of the individual." (50)

In signing the bill, President Dwight D. Eisenhower underscored the need for spiritual weapons to combat materialistic communism. He said that the legislation would require school children, while pledging the flag, to proclaim "the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." He drew attention to other parts of the globe, where "mankind has been cruelly torn by violence and brutality and, by the millions, deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life." Under the threat of atomic war, the amendment to the pledge would "have profound meaning." The statute reaffirmed the transcendence of religious faith in America's "heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war." (51)

In 1955, Congress passed legislation to place the motto "In God We Trust" on paper money. The Treasury Department supported the proposal, but requested, in view of the cost, the inclusion of the motto on the nation's paper currency be delayed until new dies could be created. Because the Bureau of Engraving and Printing planned technological improvements that would require the preparation of new dies, rolls, and plates, the motto could "be incorporated in the design with very little additional cost at the time that these changes are being made." In accordance with the wishes of President Eisenhower, the department planned to add the inscription when it converted to the new process.

Congress consequently adopted statutory language making use of "In God We Trust" mandatory on all currency and coins of the United States. The statute scheduled the change to coincide with the adoption of new dies, which "shall bear, at such place or places thereon as the Secretary of the Treasury may determine to be appropriate, the inscription `In God We Trust,' and thereafter this inscription shall appear on all United States currency and coins." (52) This statute thus broke new ground by requiring that the motto be placed on U.S. paper money. Moreover, for the first time, Congress required the use of the motto on all United States coins.

Both the House and Senate committees on banking and currency approved the bill unanimously. (53) The report from the House committee emphasized the need to express the spiritual basis of the American way of life. The committee commended to Congress "the desirability of a mandatory provision of law requiring inscription on all coins and currency of the United States of the motto `In God We Trust' which expresses so tersely and with such dignity the spiritual basis of our way of life." (54)

During floor debate on the bill, lawmakers expressed the belief that inscriptions on coins would provide a spiritual answer to the threat of materialistic communism. Charles Bennett (D-Fla.) argued, "nothing can be more certain than that our country was founded in a spiritual atmosphere and with a firm trust in God." He quoted these words from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who was later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense." In urging congressional action on the placement of "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins, Bennett warned that in "these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continuously look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and by His guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail." (55) The reports accompanying the bill and the floor debate in the House demonstrate the unanimous sentiment behind the legislation. There were no statements in opposition in either chamber. (56)

Legislation in 1956 declared the inscription "In God We Trust" to be the national motto. (57) While no floor debate occurred on the measure in either the House or the Senate, (58) the reports of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees looked for guidance to the inscription on the nation's coins and currency and to the Star-Spangled Banner ("In God is our trust"). Both reports asserted that "it will be of great spiritual and psychological value to our country to have a clearly designated national motto of inspirational quality in plain, popularly accepted English," and that they found the phrase to be "superior and more acceptable" as the nation's motto than E pluribus unum. (59)

In reporting the bill favorably, the Committee on the Judiciary pointed out that the United States lacked a national motto and that it "will be of great spiritual and pyschological value to our country to have a clearly designated national motto of inspirational quality in plain, popular accepted English." There had already been official recognition of the motto "In God We Trust" through the adoption of the Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem. The committee cited this stanza from the national anthem:
   "O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
   Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!
   Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
   Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
   Then conquer we must when our cause it is just
   And this be our motto--`In God is our trust.'
   And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
   O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." (60)

The committee recognized that the phrase E pluribus unum had also received wide usage in the United States, but considered "In God We Trust" as "a superior and more acceptable motto for the United States." (61)


Commenting upon the inscription "In God We Trust," Stokes concluded that the motto on coins "was the direct result of the crisis through which the country was passing during the Civil War, and was an evidence of the feeling that the nation needed to cultivate the spirit of religion." (62) Was the adoption of the motto intended to help the North against the South? In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln deftly indicated how both sides of the conflict appealed to God: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully." (63)

During the 1950s, when Congress passed legislation to establish a national day of prayer, changed the pledge of allegiance, placed "In God We Trust" on paper money, and adopted that phrase as the national motto, President Eisenhower encouraged spirituality and faithfulness. In 1955, he advised the American Legion, "Without God, there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first--the most basic--expression of Americanism." (64)

His comments, stated as part of the "Back-to-God" program of the American Legion on 20 February 1955, offer insights into his emphasis on spiritualism and the recognition of the divine. He began by noting the framers' belief in the dignity of the individual. After "recognizing God as the author of individual rights," the framers "declared that the purpose of Government is to secure those rights." Eisenhower referred to other countries where "the State claims to be the author of human rights." If a state can give rights, "it can--and inevitably will--take away those rights." Then comes this presidential endorsement of religion: "Without God, there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first--the most basic--expression of Americanism. Thus the Founding Fathers saw it, and thus, with God's help, it will continue to be." (65)

Both Houses of Congress placed the motto "In God We Trust" on the walls of their chambers. During the 1950-51 period, the Senate made a number of changes to the Senate roof, its skylights, and did some remodeling of the Senate chamber. The vestibules of the east, west, and south entrances to the chamber were reconstructed. Over the three doorways were placed mottos carved in marble. Over the east entrance doorway appeared Annuit Coeptis (God has favored our undertakings), over the west entrance doorway Novus Ordo Seclorum (A new order of the ages is born), and over the south entrance doorway "In God We Trust." (66)

In 1962, the House also changed its chambers to feature the national motto. Members had noticed the fifteen stars above the Speaker's chair, and concluded that there was no significance to the number. There were eleven stars on the center panel and two on each side. (67) The House passed a resolution to remove as many stars as necessary to place "In God We Trust" above the Speaker's chair. The timing of the resolution was significant because it came a few months after the Supreme Court had struck down New York's "Regents' prayer" in Engel v. Vitale (1962). This decision struck down the New York regents' directive requiring public schools to have students say aloud at the beginning of each school day these words: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." Rep. William J. Randall (D-Mo.) remarked that one of the by-products of the House resolution "is that we have given perhaps not directly but yet in a not so subtle way our answer to the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court order banning the regents prayer from the New York State schools." (68)


The statutes requiring the motto "In God We Trust" on coins and currency have been repeatedly tested in the courts. Thus far, federal courts have found the language to be constitutional. Judges are no more likely to invalidate such statutes than elected officials are likely to vote against them. It was necessary for courts to find some secular explanation for the motto, such as writing it off as ceremonial. Although no Supreme Court ruling has directly decided the question, in dicta it has often expressed support for the inscription. Lower courts often look to dicta for guidance. In 1996, the Tenth Circuit said that it "considers itself bound by Supreme Court dicta almost as firmly as the Court's outright holdings." (69)

The 1962 ruling was clearly limited to coercive actions on the part of government toward children. In an effort to ward off predictable criticism, the Court placed this language in a footnote:

There is of course nothing in the decision reached here that is inconsistent with the fact that school children and others are officially encouraged to express love for our country by reciting historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain references to the Deity or by singing officially espoused anthems which include the composer's professions of faith in a Supreme Being, or with the fact that there are many manifestations in our public life of belief in God. Suchpatriotic or ceremonial occasions bear no true resemblance to the unquestioned religious exercise that the State of New York has sponsored in this instance. (70)

Nevertheless, the concurring opinion by Justice William O. Douglas unnecessarily opened the door to boundless speculation about where the Court was headed. He said that what New York did on the opening of public schools is what the Court does when the Crier announces the convening of the Court: "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." (71) Douglas noted that each House of Congress at the opening of each day's business invited chaplains to give a prayer, and in a footnote he pointed to the motto "In God We Trust" on coins, paper money, and in the national motto. (72)

These remarks by Douglas, in addition to the Court's decision, helped fuel public confusion and outrage and became the focal point of hostile congressional hearings. (73) The prayer case was also grossly misrepresented by the president of the American Bar Association, who weighed in with the warning that the decision would require elimination of the motto "In God We Trust" from all coins. (74) The public reaction never recovered from these irresponsible readings.

National furor increased the next year when the Court decided in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) that states may not require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in public schools at the beginning of each school day. Again the Court sought to distinguish this practice from other customs that were well established and judicially acceptable, including the presidential oath that ends with "So help me God," the opening prayer in Congress, and the short ceremony by the Court's Crier. (75) The Court did not say so expressly, but clearly it was distinguishing ceremonial activities involving adults from perceived state attempts to inculcate religion in coercive settings involving children. A concurrence by Justice Brennan points to constitutional problems with religious exercises for children who are immature, without fixed religious convictions, and who fear peer-group pressures if they "step out of line." (76)

Thus, the very same religious ceremonies that have been found constitutional in the context of the general public have often been found unconstitutional when children are the primary participants. Congress and the state legislatures may employ or invite chaplains to say prayers; (77) public schools may not. Even inviting ministers and rabbis to give prayers at graduation exercises are constitutionally unacceptable because they lead to excessive entanglement between church and state. (78)

In Wooley v. Maynard (1977), the Court held that a state, consistent with the First Amendment, may not require the display of a state motto on vehicle license plates. (79) It was therefore unconstitutional for New Hampshire to compel persons to use the state license plate carrying the motto, "Live Free or Die." Jehovah's Witnesses considered the motto repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs. The Court issued this caution about the national motto: "It has been suggested that today's holding will be read as sanctioning the obliteration of the national motto, `In God We Trust' from the United States coins and currency. That question is not before us today but we note that currency, which is passed from hand to hand, differs in significant respects from an automobile, which is readily associated with its operator. Currency is generally carried in a purse or pocket and need not be displayed to the public. The bearer of currency is thus not required to publicly advertise the national motto." (80)

In a dissent, Justice Rehnquist said that the Court's opinion "leads to startling, and I believe totally unacceptable, results." In noting that the mottoes "In God We Trust" and E Pluribus Unum appear on U.S. coins and currency, he reasoned that the statutes proscribing defacement of U.S. currency did not impinge upon the First Amendment rights of an atheist. Thus: "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.'" (81)

In cases involving the display of creches and menorahs on public property, the Supreme Court follows a line of reasoning similar to lower courts that have upheld the motto "In God We Trust." In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), the Court upheld the constitutionality of these displays by finding that they had a "secular purpose." Such displays, said the Court, are sponsored by public officials "to celebrate the Holiday," to depict "the origins of that Holiday," and are "legitimate secular purposes." (82) The Court referred approvingly to the religious heritage found in the national motto, "In God We Trust," the inclusion of that language in national currency, and use of the language "one nation under God" as part of the pledge of allegiance. (83) In another creche/ menorah case, the Court observed, "our previous opinions have considered in dicta the motto and the pledge [of allegiance], characterizing them as consistent with the proposition that government may not communicate an endorsement of religious belief." (84)

In separate opinions, several justices have found governmental references to "In God We Trust" as constitutionally acceptable. In a concurring opinion in Lynch, Justice O'Connor referred to legislative prayers, the printing of "In God We Trust" on currency, the appeal to God that accompanies the opening of Court sessions, and the declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday as examples. Those practices, she said, contribute "in the only ways reasonably possible in our culture, [to] the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society." (85) She reiterated that view in a concurring opinion in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU. The printing of "In God We Trust" on coins serves "secular purposes," and "such government acknowledgments of religion are not understood as conveying an endorsement of particular religious beliefs." (86)

Justice Brennan, in Schempp, remarked that the use of the motto "In God We Trust" on currency, government documents, and public buildings did not offend the Establishment Clause. He did not argue that the use of those four words "can be dismissed as `de minimis,'" for he suspected that intense opposition would emerge in any effort to abandon the motto. However, 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." (87)

Dissenting in Lynch v. Donnelly, Brennan suggested that such practices as designating "In God We Trust" as the national motto and references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, "can best be understood, in Dean Rostow's apt phrase, as a form of `ceremonial deism,' protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." (88) To Brennan, these references serve "such wholly secular purposes as solemnizing public occasions, or inspiring commitment to meet some national challenge in a manner that simply could not be fully served in our culture if government were limited to purely nonreligious phrases." (89)

In addition to dicta from Court rulings, lower courts have squarely addressed the motto. In each instance, me inscription and motto have been held to be constitutional. In Aronow v. United States (1970), the Ninth Circuit ruled that the inscription and its use as the national motto represented "patriotic or ceremonial character and ... no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of religion." The suit challenged the use of expressions of trust in God by me U.S. government on its coins, paper money, official documents and publications. (90) To the court, the motto lacked any theological or ritualistic impact. The court cited language from a committee report that spoke about "spiritual and psychological value" and "inspirational quality." (91)

The court also took guidance from Engel v. Vitale, which accepted references to God in the Declaration of Independence and officially espoused anthems. The Ninth Circuit found no religious significance in paying a bill with coin or currency "on which has been imprinted `In God We Trust.'" It noted that President Theodore Roosevelt viewed the secular use of the motto as "sacrilegious and irreverent." In acknowledging that "ceremonial" and "patriotic" may not be "particularly apt words" for describing the national motto, the Court found no First Amendment problem because the motto "has no theological or ritualistic impact." (92)

The court in Aronow looked to the case of McGowan v. Maryland (1961), which found no constitutional objection to states requiring businesses to close on Sundays. To nullify such laws, plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that such legislation, either in its legislative history or practice, amounted to a state's coercive power to assist religion. Neither those laws nor the national motto have such a purpose, "either in Congressional intent or practical impact on society." (93)

Finally, the Ninth Circuit pointed to the Supreme Court ruling in Walz v. Tax Commission (1970), which upheld the constitutionality of tax exemptions for religious organizations. There the Court held that it would not tolerate "either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion." It is necessary, the Court determined, to allow "room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference." (94)

In O'Hair v. Blumenthal (1978), (95) a district court reviewed a plaintiff's allegation that the national motto "In God We Trust" and the use of that motto on national coins and currency violated the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. The court cited Aronow for the holding that the national motto and its use on coinage and currency had nothing to do with the establishment of religion. The primary purpose of the slogan was secular and served a secular ceremonial purpose in the "obviously secular function of providing a medium of exchange." Use of the motto on "the currency or otherwise does not have a primary effect of advancing religion. Moreover, it would be ludicrous to argue that the use of the national motto fosters any excessive government entanglement with religion." (96)

Most recently, the issue reached the Tenth Circuit in Gaylor v. United States (1996), which challenged the use of "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency. The court found that the statutes establishing the national motto and directing its reproduction on currency have a secular purpose. The motto "symbolizes the historical role of religion" in society, "formalizes our medium of exchange," and "expresses confidence in the future." It agreed with earlier court holdings that the motto's primary purpose is not to advance religion but rather to represent "a form of `ceremonial deism' that through historical usage and ubiquity cannot be reasonably understood to convey government approval of religious belief." The motto did not create "an intimate relationship of the type that suggests unconstitutional entanglement of church and state." (97)

Although federal courts have upheld the use of "In God We Trust," they have struck down government reliance on more sectarian and denominational expressions. For example, the Seventh Circuit in 1991 found unconstitutional the use by two Illinois cities of the Latin cross on their seal, emblem, and logo. Presence of the cross violated the Establishment Clause because it endorsed Christianity, and the effect of the cross was not neutralized by being mixed with nonreligious symbols. (98) After the Seventh Circuit denied a petition for a rehearing en banc, the Supreme Court denied certiorari. (99)


The need to emphasize spiritualism and unity in times of acute crisis or challenges in the nation's history has prompted reliance on a religious inscription. At hours of national peril and danger, an expression of national trust in God was felt to be important by the general public and elected officials. They decided to borrow from a stanza in the Star-Spangled Banner and embrace "In God We Trust" as the national motto, while at the same time retaining the secular option, "E pluribus unum."

Obviously the "we" in the national motto does not reflect the position of the entire population. Many U.S. citizens are agnostic, atheistic, or belong to religions such as Buddhism that do not require a belief in God. These people find comfort in Justice Black's language in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), where he said that neither the federal government nor a state can force or influence a person "to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion." Similarly, no person "can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance." (100) Government may not compel public officers to declare a belief in the existence of God. (101) Individuals may conscientiously object to combat duty without declaring a belief in a deity. (102)

"Out of many, one" remains a cherished motto for a country that has successfully forged a nation from a diverse population. Diversity includes believers and nonbelievers, those who trust in God and those who rely on other sources. Adoption of "In God We Trust" as the national motto and its placement on coins and currency has not produced uniformity of thought and belief in a population that has, from its beginnings, been heterogeneous and becomes ever more so with each passing decade.

Probably a majority of citizens in the U.S. is comfortable with governmental reliance on religious mottos. They might ask how they would feel if the U.S. population changed sufficiently to warrant "In Allah We Trust" as the national motto, and required public officials to place one hand on the Koran and utter "so help me Allah." (103) America has held together as a nation in large part because of its history of religious tolerance. Mutual respect and the acceptance of diversity allow individuals to enlarge their understanding of the culture, the history, and the values of those who are different. It is important that citizens (especially newcomers) feel welcome and accepted, regardless of their religious belief or disbelief. They should not feel like outcasts in a land where the majority seeks to press its moral code as the dominant and official religion.

(1.) See H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 1st Sess. (1955), 2.

(2.) Joseph Cotton, Our American Money: A Collector's Story (New York: Coward-McCann, 1940), 66.

(3.) See Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950), III: 604.

(4.) H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 2; also quoted in H. Rept. No. 1106, 60th Cong., 1st Sess. (1908), 2.

(5.) H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 3.

(6.) Cotton, Our American Money, 66-67.

(7.) Stokes, Church and State, 601.

(8.) Annual Report of the Director of the Mint (1862), quoted in Stokes, Church and State, 601-02.

(9.) Annual Report of the Director of the Mint (1863), quoted in Stokes, Church and State, 602.

(10.) H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 3.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) 5 Stat. 138, [section] 13 (1837).

(13.) 13 Stat. 54-55 (1864).

(14.) 13 Stat. 518, [section] 5 (1865).

(15.) The legislative history of H.R. 807 appears in Congressional Globe, 38th Cong., 2d Sess. (1865), 1372, 1390, 1391, 1393, 1403, 1422, 1423.

(16.) H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 3.

(17.) 17 Stat. 427, [section] 18 (1873).

(18.) Willard B. Gatewood, "Theodore Roosevelt and the Coinage Controversy," American Quarterly 18 (1966): 36.

(19.) Ibid., 37.

(20.) Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1920), I: 361.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Stokes, Church and State, 603; Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, II: 72-73.

(23.) Stokes, Church and State, 603.

(24.) Gatewood, "Theodore Roosevelt and the Coinage Controversy," 40.

(25.) Revised Statutes of the United States, 1873-74 (1878), 697.

(26.) Joseph B. Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, II, 72.

(27.) Stokes, Church and State, 603.

(28.) Gatewood, "Theodore Roosevelt and the Coinage Controversy," 41-42.

(29.) Ibid., 43.

(30.) Ibid., 46.

(31.) Congressional Record (1908), 42: 513.

(32.) Ibid., 516.

(33.) H. Rept., No. 1106, 60th Cong., 1st Sess. (1908), 1.

(34.) Ibid., 2.

(35.) J. Hampton Moore, Roosevelt and the Old Guard (Philadelphia: Macrae-Smith Co., 1925), 202.

(36.) Congressional Record, 42: 3384 (1908).

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) Ibid., 3385.

(40.) Ibid., 3386.

(41.) Ibid., 3387.

(42.) Ibid.

(43.) Ibid., 3386.

(44.) Ibid., 3391.

(45.) Ibid., 6189.

(46.) 35 Stat. 164 (1908).

(47.) 66 Stat. 64 (1952); 36 U.S.C. [section] 169h.

(48.) S. Rept. No. 1389, 82d Cong., 2d Sess. (1952); Congressional Record (1952), 98: 1546, 3807.

(49.) S. Rept. No. 1287, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. (1954), 2.

(50.) H. Rept. No. 1693, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. (1954), 1-2. For the floor debate, see Congressional Record (1954), 100: 6231-32, 6348, 7757-66, 7833-35.

(51.) Public Papers of the Presidents, 1954, 563. The joint resolution amending the pledge of allegiance appears at 68 Stat. 249.

(52.) 69 Stat. 290 (1955).

(53.) H. Rept., No. 637, 84th Cong., 1st Sess. (1955).

(54.) H. Rept., No. 662, 84th Cong., 1st Sess., 4.

(55.) Congressional Record (1955), 101: 7796.

(56.) H. Rept. No. 662, 84th Cong., 1st Sess (1955); S. Rept. No. 637, 84th Cong., 1st Sess. (1955); Congressional Record (1955), 101: 7795-6, 9448-49.

(57.) 70 Stat. 732 (1956); 36 U.S.C. [section] 186 (2000). The legislation passed the House and the Senate without debate.

(58.) See Congressional Record (1956), 102: 6359, 13917.

(59.) See H. Rept. No. 1959, 84th Cong., 2d Sess. (1956), and S. Rept. No. 2703, 84th Cong., 2d Sess. (1956).

(60.) S. Rept. No. 2703, 84th Cong., 2d Sess. (1956), 2.

(61.) Ibid. Other parts of this brief legislative history appear in H. Rept. No. 1959, 84th Cong., 2d Sess. (1956) and Congressional Record (1956), 101: 6359, 1391.

(62.) Stokes, Church and State, 603.

(63.) James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 20 vols. (New York: Bureau of National Literature, 1897), VIII: 3478.

(64.) Public Papers of the Presidents, 1955, 274. See Louis Fisher, American Constitutional Law, 4th ed. (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 621 ff.

(65.) Public Papers of the Presidents, 1955, 273-74.

(66.) History of United States Senate Roof and Chamber Improvements and Related Historical Data, S. Doc. No. 20, 82d Cong., 1st Sess. (1951), 27.

(67.) Congressional Record 108 (1962): 21100, 21101.

(68.) Ibid., 21102.

(69.) Gaylor v. United States, 74 F.3d 214, 217 (10th Cir. 1996).

(70.) Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 435 n.21 (1962).

(71.) Ibid., 439.

(72.) Ibid., 439-40, 440-41 n. 5.

(73.) Louis Fisher, "Nonjudicial Safeguards for Religious Liberty," University of Cincinnati Law Review 70 (2001): 67.

(74.) Chester A. Newland, "Press Coverage of the United State Supreme Court," Western Political Quarterly 17 (1964): 28.

(75.) School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 213 (1963).

(76.) Ibid., 276, 290.

(77.) Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983); Murray v. Buchanan, 720 F.2d 689 (D.C. Cir. 1983).

(78.) Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).

(79.) Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977).

(80.) Ibid., 717, n. 15.

(81.) Ibid., 722.

(82.) Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984) at 681.

(83.) Ibid., 676.

(84.) Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) at 602-03.

(85.) Lynch, 465 U.S. at 693 (O'Connor, J., concurring).

(86.) Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 625 (O'Connor, J., concurring).

(87.) Abington School Dist. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) at 303 (Brennan, J. concurring).

(88.) Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. at 717 (Brennan, J., dissenting).

(89.) Ibid., 717.

(90.) Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242, 243 (9th Cir. 1970).

(91.) Ibid. For background on Aronow's lawsuit, see Frank J. Sorauf, The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of Church and State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 139-40.

(92.) Engel at 243.

(93.) Aronow at 244.

(94.) Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664 (1970) at 669-70; cited in Aronow at 244.

(95.) O'Hair v. Blumenthal, 462 F.Supp. 19 (W.D. Tex. 1978), affirmed, 588 F.2d 1144 (5th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 930 (1979).

(96.) O'Hair v. Blumenthal, 20.

(97.) 74 F.3d 214, 216 (10th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1211 (1996).

(98.) Harris v. City of Zion, 927 F.2d 1401 (7th Cir. 1991).

(99.) Harris v. City of Zion, 934 F.2d 141 (7th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 505 U.S. 1218 (1992).

(100.) Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) at 15-16.

(101.) Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961).

(102.) United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965). See also Fisher, "Nonjudicial Safeguards for Religious Liberty," Cincinnati Law Review 70 (2001): 56-59.

(103.) Steven B. Epstein, "Rethinking the Constitutionality of Ceremonial Deism," Columbia Law Review 96 (1996): 2084-85.

* LOUIS FISHER (B.S., College of William and Mary; M.A., Ph.D., New School for Social Research) is Senior Specialist in Separation of Powers, Congressional Research Service, at The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. He is author of American Constitutional Law Congressional Abdication on War and Spending, and Religious Liberty in America: Political Safeguards, among others. NADA MOURTADA-SABBAH (B.A., American University of Beirut; M.A., Ph.D., University of Paris II) is assistant professor of political studies, American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. She is author of Le Privilege de L'Executif Aux Etas-Unis and an article in Revue du Droit Public et de la Science Politique. She dedicates this essay to Chancellor Roderick S. French.
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Author:Fisher, Louis; Mourtada-Sabbah, Nada
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Date:Sep 22, 2002
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