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In God We Trust - Protecting Our National Motto


Jay Sekulow

June 25, 2011

5 min read

American Heritage



Theres a legal drumbeat that continues to sound a drumbeat that signals an intense effort to remove any mention of God from our long-standing historical and cultural landscape.

You may recall the litany of litigation a legal challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase one nation under God a challenge that was turned back by the Supreme Court.  Also, the presidential inaugural prayer was targeted for elimination.  That effort failed.  And, now, the latest assault is against our national motto, In God We Trust which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

Michael Newdow, an activist attorney who brought the above mentioned legal challenges, is now in federal court in Sacramento, California trying to have the national motto declared unconstitutional.  Newdow claims In God We Trust violates the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. 

But Michael Newdow is wrong. 

The words of the motto echo the conviction held by the Founding Fathers of this nation that our freedoms come from God.  In passing legislation in 1956 that made In God We Trust our national motto, Congress acted for the express purpose of reaffirming Americas unique history and understanding of this truth and to distinguish America from atheistic nations who recognize no higher authority than the State.

Every court that had decided the issue has held that the national motto presents no Establishment Clause concerns.  In 1970, a federal appeals court dismissed a previous challenge to federal statutes requiring the national motto to be inscribed on U.S. currency.  In that case, (Aronow v United States) the appeals court concluded that that the national motto has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion.  Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.

While the Supreme Court has never addressed the constitutionality of the national motto directly, the high courts jurisprudence strongly indicates that the display of the national motto raises no Establishment Clause issues.

In 1892 the high court concluded that this is a religious nation. (Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States)  In 1963, the high court recognized that religion has been closely identified with our history and government.  (Abington v. Schempp)  And such recognition of the primacy of religion in our nations heritage is nowhere more affirmatively expressed than in Zorach v. Clauson in 1952.  In that case, the high court stated:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.

Lets not forget the historical significance of the phrase In God We Trust.  Use of the slogan dates back to the War of 1812.  In September 1814, fearing for the fate of America while watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Francis Scott Key composed the poem the Star Spangled Banner, of which one line in the final stanza is And this be our motto in God is our trust.  When Congress codified the longstanding motto in 1956 fifty years ago it articulated a purpose that reflected patriotic inspiration:  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.

At the American Center for Law and Justice, we filed an amicus brief with the federal court in California on behalf of 47 members of Congress who want to ensure that our national motto remains in place.  We believe that history and legal precedent is on our side.

The price of freedom in this country is that sometimes you are exposed to words, expressions, or phrases that you do not agree with or that offend you.  That is the price of freedom.

It is also clear that the Establishment Clause was never intended as a guarantee that a person will not be exposed to religion or religious symbols on public property.  And, the Supreme Court has rejected previous attempts to eradicate all symbols of this countrys religious heritage from the publics view.

At the ACLJ, we remain committed to work aggressively in the courts to protect our national motto, In God We Trust and other patriotic expressions that reflect our religious heritage.

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