WASHINGTON—Fifty years after “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. paper currency, those four little words have proven to be the source of big debate in the courts.
Michael Newdow, the California atheist known for trying to strip “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, has asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to declare “In God We Trust” an unconstitutional mingling of church and state. In Indiana, the American Civil Liberties Union has gone to district court, arguing it's unfair for the state not to charge administrative fees for “In God We Trust” license plates when a plate advocating for the environment carries extra fees.
Why, decades after the words were made the nation's official motto and printed on our dollar bills, do they still inspire ire?
“A great many Americans are angry … when the government promotes religion, and a great many other Americans believe that this is not promoting religion—they're just representing who we are as a nation,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. “That divide is an old story in American history and will probably continue way into the future.”
Long before the words were printed on paper money, they first appeared on coins after a Pennsylvania minister wrote to the secretary of the treasury in 1861, suggesting God's name should be featured on U.S. coins.
“This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism,” M.R. Watkinson wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in 1861, according to the website of the U.S. Treasury Department. Three years later, U.S. coins began to bear the words “In God We Trust.”
It wasn't until 1956 that Congress declared those words to be the national motto. On Oct. 1, 1957, they began appearing on the back of dollar bills under the words “The United States of America.”
Newdow, whose case was dismissed by a lower federal court last year, said the words referring to a deity divide society by making non-believers “second-class citizens.”
“The issue is not one of people who believe in God versus people who don't believe in God,” he said. “It's people who believe in equality versus people who don't believe in equality. That's what this litigation is about.”
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, has filed a brief opposing Newdow on behalf of dozens of members of Congress.
“It reflects the heritage of the country,” he said of the debated motto. “It's something the founding fathers recognized, that our rights and liberties were endowed by a creator. You recognize the source of these rights.”
A 2003 Gallup Poll found 90 percent of Americans approve of the inscription “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins. A survey released earlier this month by the First Amendment Center found 65 percent of Americans think the nation's founders intended the country to be a Christian nation, and 55 percent think the U.S. Constitution establishes it as a Christian country.
“That suggests that a great many people have deeply misunderstood the Constitution,” said Haynes. “The framers clearly wanted to establish a secular nation where anyone of any faith or of no faith could hold public office—and that's a far cry from a Christian nation.”
About a dozen states have passed laws declaring public schools can post the motto. Five years ago, the American Family Association was involved in a campaign that shipped hundreds of thousands of posters to supporters so they could send them to local schools.
“I think we need to be constantly reminded and, although I don't look at my coins and my paper money day by day, there is a great satisfaction knowing that it's there and knowing that our government still recognizes God,” said Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss.