The state of South Dakota made headlines this week as they implemented a new law that requires all schools in the state to prominently display the nation's motto “In God We Trust.” The law was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem in March of this year.

South Dakota schools are acting now to ensure that the motto will be in place before classes resume in the Fall. The law requires that the display – which may be engraved on a plaque or painted onto the school wall – must be at least 12 inches by 12 inches in size. It must be displayed in a public space, such as over the entrance or on the cafeteria wall, or in another location where students are certain to see it.

South Dakota is not the only state to implement this law. According to the Washington Post, at least six states passed similar laws in 2018, and 10 states have introduced or passed similar laws this year. In Kentucky, school officials are preparing to display the motto prominently in their schools.

 

Opposition from Atheist Groups

As expected, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other activist atheist groups have begun their protests against the new law, calling it a “stealth campaign” to inject religion into state legislation. The FFRF said in a news release July 25 that “The motto 'In God We Trust' is inaccurate, exclusionary, and aimed at brainwashing American schoolchildren into believing that our nation is a theocracy.” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, told the Associated Press that the forcible display of the motto “In God We Trust” in public schools is “a terrible violation of freedom of conscience to inflict a godly message on a captive audience of school children.”

In Kentucky, members of the American Civil Liberties Union mounted a campaign to try to prevent adoption of a similar bill; but the legislation passed despite that opposition.

And a student group from Stevens High School in Rapid City, South Dakota, submitted a proposal to make the motto “more inclusive” by including other names for a higher power – alternating “God” with “Budda,” “Yahweh” and “Allah” as well as other terms such as “science” and “the spirits.” The school board listened respectfully to their proposal, but took no action.

But there is precedent for inclusion of the national motto in public settings. In June 2008, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled in a similar case brought by self-declared Satanist Kenneth Mayle that printing “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency doesn't amount to a religious endorsement, and therefore doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution. In their ruling, the Court cited an earlier Court decision that a motto on currency isn't something for people to display prominently, and that people are not forced to publicly advertise views that clash with their own. The Seventh Circuit Court described the phrase as a “historical reminder” of the nation's heritage.

 

History of the National Motto

The first mention of a religious phrase on U.S. currency came in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase, signed by a minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, Rev. M.R. Watkinson. According to the Treasury Department website, Reverend Watkinson wrote on Nov. 13, 1861:

...One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.

You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.

Secretary Chase responded on Nov. 20, 1861,

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

You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.

“In God We Trust” was first stamped on a two-cent coin in 1864 during the Civil War, and on all U.S. coins beginning in 1938. It was formally adopted as our official motto in 1956 during the Cold War, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the proposal into law. The first paper bills to include the motto were printed the following year.