We come in contact with the words “In God We Trust” every day. In fact, the words are so intertwined into American society people often overlook their very presence.
But when posted in a public place, recited in a government forum, or associated with official functions, they can have the ability to radicalize the debate over the separation of church and state.
Here in California, more than 65 cities have chosen to add the National Motto to their buildings. It’s a movement with devoted advocates and a surprising absence of vocal critics or organized resistance.
This issue came to my attention after a reader sent me a picture of the City Council’s dais in Sonora, California. Above the council members’ chairs, and mounted on the wall, are the words ‘In God We Trust.’
I grew up in the southeastern United States, so maybe I have a clearer recollection of the debate that raged when Alabama refused to remove the Ten Commandments from its State House. Seven years ago, a decision by U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson forced the removal of a two-ton granite monument to the Ten Commandments. Its presence in a government building was declared unconstitutional. (If needed, read this refresher article.)
Often the opponents of the Ten Commandments, prayer in school, or the pledge of allegiance cite violations of the Separation of Church and State as the central issue. However, it turns out that there is a legal difference between the Ten Commandments and the National Motto – “In God We Trust.”
The words “In God We Trust” date back to the early- to mid-1800s, when they were first struck onto the coins of the Union. It was not until 1956 that they became our National Motto.
The creation of this National Motto is said to reflect the role that religion has played in the United States’ history, and is not a declaration of a support of religion. This is a position that has been upheld by the courts numerous times since then.
The same is not true of the Ten Commandments, which have never been lawfully added to our country’s history or identity. Don’t get me wrong; I believe whole-heartedly that there are 10 really good things on those two stones. In fact (mom and dad, if you’re reading this), I’m a big fan of the Fifth. And to my fiancée, I’m a bigger supporter of the Seventh. But despite the sage wisdom of the tablets, they remain religious doctrine.
While it is a fine distinction, it has withstood numerous tests in the courts. And now, people are working to place the National Motto everywhere possible.
One person, Jacquie Sullivan founded In God We Trust – America to help advance that agenda.
Jacquie says that no one’s ever challenged the Motto in California. “There have been no legal challenges because there is nothing to challenge,” said Sullivan. “Because our national motto was adopted by congress in 1956, there’s no legal basis for a challenge.”
And the Pacific Justice Institute agrees. In a letter Sullivan provided to me, the PJI cites the multitude of cases where the Motto’s secular importance has been upheld. One such decision, which the letter paraphrases says, “As you may have heard, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed… that displaying such a venerable reminder of our national heritage and identity as the national motto is unquestionably constitutional.”
Professor Jesse Choper, Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, held similar views. “There are a lot of people who have asked [why that is constitutional]. And there are is a variety of answers.”
Professor Choper cited one such answer that originated just a few miles south of my home in Sacramento. In 2004, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion in Elk Grove v. Newdow, the case regarding the words “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance. That opinion read, in part, “It is a patriotic exercise and not a religious one. Participants promise fidelity to the flag and not to any god, faith, or church.”
If anyone does choose to challenge the legality of the National Motto, however, the Pacific Justice Institute has offered to help out. Part of the letter provided to In God We Trust – America states that they “would be honored to defend [any government entity], at no charge, in state or federal court.”
Nevertheless, in a state as diverse as California some areas aren’t likely going to display the National Motto publicly. One local government advocate said he’d have trouble imagining it happening anywhere in Yolo County.
That’s the challenge that groups like In God We Trust – America face: having the message of heritage and honor reach the right people. Sullivan believes that the hurdle to having more cities adopt displays of the motto is getting them to put it on the City Council agendas. “Usually they wouldn’t put it on their agenda unless they intend to vote yes,” she says. “They wouldn’t want to put it on there to display a no vote. Instead, they just choose to ignore it.”
So she’ll continue approaching cities and counties with her packet of information. And her success has been admirable.
Their first “Yes-City” was Bakersfield, who voted in 2002 to display the Motto. Since then, In God We Trust – America has helped 65 other municipalities in California to vote yes.
So far, the group’s work includes a total 141 Yes-Cities in six states.