The Story of Our National Motto
“In God We Trust.”
The national motto “In God We Trust” has withstood many challenges through the years - including a current lawsuit contesting the legality of using this familiar phrase on U.S. coins and paper money and seeks its removal.
The current suit, filed in Ohio in January 2016 by atheist lawyer-activist Michael Newdow, argues that there is no “compelling government interest” in the motto and that placing it on coins and currency forces atheists to use forms of money to which they strongly object.
The case was still pending in late July 2016. In previous lawsuits, however, judges have consistently upheld the use of the motto on money.
A federal judge in New York, in a ruling Sept. 10, 2013, dismissed a lawsuit seeking to force removal of the words from U.S. coins and currency. In doing so, District Judge Harold Baer Jr. wrote that “the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect” and that federal appeals courts “have found no constitutional violation in the motto’s inclusion on currency.”
The suit had been filed Feb. 1 by an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 other plaintiffs. They demanded that the U.S. Treasury be ordered to remove the motto from U.S. coins and paper money on grounds that its use constitutes “discrimination” against non-believers.
By handing their money to anyone in a commercial exchange, the plaintiffs argued, atheists are “forced to proselytize – by an act of Congress – for a deity they don’t believe in.”
The judge ruled that while the plaintiffs might feel offended, they suffered no “substantial burden” because of the motto’s appearance on U.S. money.
A similar case in 2011, brought by the same atheist attorney, Michael Newdow, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected.
Most Americans, including President Barack Obama, have taken the words “In God We Trust” for granted. Thus, many were surprised in 2011 when the House of Representatives voted to reaffirm this simple phrase as the official national motto.
The story of the motto is an engrossing one, full of fascinating twists and turns – and from its inception, the phrase has been closely linked to the money in Americans’ pockets. The motto now appears on all U.S. coins and paper money, but nearly a century passed before that point was reached. One coin lacked the inscription as late as 1938 – and it didn’t appear at all on the nation’s paper money until 1957.
The phrase “In God We Trust” made headlines in October 2011, when the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution reaffirming its status as the U.S. national motto. It did so after President Barack Obama mistakenly referred to “E Pluribus Unum” as the nation’s official motto. That familiar phrase – which in Latin means “Out of many, one” – has appeared on U.S. coinage for more than two centuries, but enjoys no official status.
Democrats, including Obama, charged that in drafting and passing the resolution, the Republican-controlled House was wasting time that could have been better spent on hammering out a job-creation bill.
“That’s not putting people back to work,” Obama said. “I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work. There’s work to be done. There are workers ready to do it. The American people are behind this.”