Foundation Lawsuit Challenges “In God We Trust” Motto (June/July 1994)

Vol. 11 No. 5 – Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. – June/July 1994

Filed In June In Denver Federal Court

Notice the difference: The motto “In God We Trust” does not appear on the 1935 dollar bill (top). The phrase only began appearing in the late 1950s.
The national Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on June 8 in federal court in Denver, Colorado, challenging the U.S. motto “In God We Trust” and its use on currency.

Named in the lawsuit are the U.S. government, Lloyd Bentsen, Treasury Secretary, and Mary Ellen Withrow, Treasurer of the United States.

The lawsuit challenges Congressional action in 1955 which placed “In God We Trust” on all U.S. coins and currency, and a 1956 law making that phrase the U.S. motto.

Foundation president Anne Nicol Gaylor, a plaintiff, noted that the motto on currency is the most common complaint the Foundation hears from its membership.

“We hear it constantly,” she said. “There are all kinds of complaints, of course, regarding state/church entanglement, but this really is a special grievance. Some people complain about the $200,000 of tax money annually that pays for Congressional prayers, and others want to know why churches aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. Parents also protest their children having to say a religious pledge. But almost everyone complains about having to use money which promotes a belief in religion.”

Gaylor also noted that “God” on the money is the underpinning of other abuses.

“It is constantly cited by the religious right as verification that this is a ‘Christian nation,’ and as grounds for further state/church entanglement. The religious right needs to be reminded that ours is a godless Constitution, and was very purposefully and deliberately written that way.”

She noted that for most of our history, the national motto, still on the Great Seal, was “E Pluribus Unum”–“From Many, [Come] One,” a description of American plurality and the federal form of government uniting all the states.

“Most people do not realize that ‘In God We Trust’ is a johnny-come-lately. We believe the motto ‘E pluribus unum’ should resume its former stature. After all, it was the motto chosen by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.”

As evidence that the “God” motto is considered an endorsement of religion by the public, the Foundation commissioned an independent national survey. Sixty-one percent consider “In God We Trust” religious, and 71% believe it endorses a belief in God. A majority also regard the motto as preferring religion over nonreligion. (Chamberlain Research, poll of 900 adults, conducted May 18-23, 1994)

Joining Gaylor as Wisconsin plaintiffs in the suit are Dan Barker, a former minister and director of public relations at the Foundation, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the Foundation’s newspaper Freethought Today. Colorado plaintiffs include Jeff Baysinger, director of the Denver, Colorado chapter of the Foundation, Glenn Smith and Lora Attwood. Denver attorney Robert Tiernan is representing the Foundation.

The lawsuit was reported on the front page of Coin World (June 27, 1994), which documented the religious history of the motto on money.

The idea for the motto originated during the Civil War with Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting the religious motto. Watkinson argued that a religious phrase on coins would “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”

Chase endorsed the idea in a letter of Nov. 20, 1861 to U.S. Mint Director James Pollock:

“No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.”

The 1864 2-cent coin was the first coin to bear the phrase, and it began appearing on the 1-cent coin. President Theodore Roosevelt explicitly requested that the religious phrase not appear on new designs for $20 gold double eagles and $10 gold eagles, regarding it as sacrilegious. Congress reacted by the Act of May 18, 1908, making the phrase mandatory on some coins, but excepting certain dimes, and 1- and 5-cent coins. Coin World claims that by 1938, when the Jefferson 5-cent coin was introduced, “In God We Trust” was found on all U.S. coins.

It was not on paper money until the late 1950’s. Another religionist, Arkansas collector Matthew H. Rothert, noticed while attending a church service that only U.S. coins bore the “In God We Trust” imprint. He wanted “a message about the country’s faith in God” to be “carried throughout the world” on paper currency, launching a lobbying campaign. Public Law 140 was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 11, 1955, mandating that the motto appear on all U.S. coins and paper money. A $1 silver certificate bearing the legend first appeared in October 1957.

Robert Tiernan notes there has not been a motto challenge since the Supreme Court has favored Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “endorsement test.”

In addition to being an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, the motto is inaccurate, Gaylor said.

“To be accurate it would have to read ‘In God Some Of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”

Freedom From Religion Foundation