National motto is under fire despite long history of its use

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Published : 07/19/13
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High school cheerleaders and valedictorians have come under fire recently when they’ve sought to invoke God’s name on their banners and in speeches. A simple, court-tested way to beat such attacks can be found on the money in their pockets.

The official national motto, “In God We Trust,” has appeared on all the money made for U.S. commerce for nearly half a century and withstood legal challenges.

Students at Kountze High School in east Texas have learned this lesson firsthand. The Kountze school board banned the display of faith-based messages at school events last fall, after football cheerleaders waved banners emblazoned with references to God and an atheist group filed a protest. But attorneys for the students sued to overturn the ban. On May 8, a Texas state judge ruled in their favor.

“Neither the Establishment Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] nor any other law prohibits the cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events,” Judge Steve Thomas concluded in his summary judgment ordering removal of the ban.

The atheist group that objected to the banners is no stranger to the nation’s coin collectors. The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has also been unsuccessfully waging a legal fight to get “In God We Trust” stricken from U.S. coins and paper currency.

However, appeals courts have supported such traditional, patriotic and ceremonial phrases.

“In God We Trust” made national headlines in October 2011 when the House of Representatives passed a resolution reaffirming its status as the U.S. national motto. It did so after President Barack Obama mistakenly referred to “E Pluribus Unum” — words that have no official status — as the national motto.

The 2011 resolution also urged that the motto be prominently displayed in all public schools and government buildings.

The motto’s use on money was a direct outgrowth of religious fervor during the U.S. Civil War. A Baptist minister from Pennsylvania, Mark Watkinson, sent a letter to Salmon Chase, President Lincoln’s Treasury secretary, dated Nov. 13, 1861.

Chase wrote to Mint Director James Pollock, and from 1861 to 1864 the Mint struck pattern coins bearing three different mottoes: “God Our Trust,” “God and Our Country” and “In God We Trust.” The Treasury finally used “In God We Trust” on the 2-cent piece, a new denomination, in 1864.

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