Where Does 'In God We Trust' Come From? National Motto Appearing in Public Schools Across America

In July, a new law took effect requiring South Dakota public schools to prominently display the phrase "In God We Trust" on school grounds starting in the 2019-2020 academic year.

"A prominent location is a school entryway, cafeteria, or other common area where students are most likely to see the national motto display," reads the measure, signed into law by Republican Governor Kristi Noem.

The words can be featured on a sign or plaque, or even in a mural, but they must be at least 12 inches square.

In God We Trust
Lawmakers in South Dakota claim requiring "In God we Trust" to appear in all public schools will inspire patriotism among students. Getty Images

Lawmakers in South Dakota claim requiring "In God we Trust" to appear in all public schools will inspire patriotism among students.Getty Images

The law also ensures that any school that faces a lawsuit over the motto will be defended by the South Dakota Attorney General's office, at no cost. And if the school loses, the state will pay any legal fees or monetary damages.

South Dakota's not the only state to be gung-ho about our national motto: Kentucky governor Matt Bevin signed a similar measure in March, following Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida. Mississippi mandates that "In God We Trust" appear in every classroom, auditorium and cafeteria in the state.

After 9/11, the American Family Association supplied 11-by-14-inch posters bearing the phrase to school systems across the country. (The group also promised to defend against any legal challenges to displaying the signs.)

Where did "In God We Trust" come from?

Most Americans know it appears on U.S. currency, but it didn't become the national motto until 1956. Prior to that, our unofficial slogan was the decidedly less religious E pluribus unum ("Out of many, one"), adopted back in 1782 when Charles Thomson designed the Great Seal of the United States.

According to the Treasury Department, "In God We Trust" was first added to the two-cent piece in 1864, "largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War."

"No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense," Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase wrote to U.S. Mint director James Pollack in 1861. "The trust of our people in God 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."

Pollack tried a few different versions of phrases invoking the Deity and finally he and Chase settled on "In God We Trust." Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1864, paving the way for the phrase to start being stamped on coins.

It actually disappeared from the nickel in 1883, not reappearing until 1938. It was also missing from the eagle gold coin when it debuted in 1907, but was added the following year. The phrase has appeared on every quarter minted since 1908, every penny since 1909, and every dime since 1916.

But "In God We Trust" really didn't pick up steam until the 1950s, at the height of anti-communist fervor in America. (The same time "one nation, under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.) Politicians in both parties were eager to make a clear distinction between God-fearing America and the godless Soviet Union.

A 1956 law signed by President Dwight Eisenhower made "In God We Trust" the national motto. It also declared that the phrase must appear in capital letters on all paper money.

In God We Trust
The phrase "In God We Trust" didn't appear on paper currency until the late 1950s, at the height of the Cold War Getty Images

"In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom," Representative Charles Edward Bennett (R-FL) said when he introduced the bill.

A resolution from the House Judiciary Committee claimed it would be "of great spiritual and psychological value to our country to have a clearly designated national motto of inspirational quality in plain, popularly accepted English."

"In God We Trust" first showed up on the one dollar bill in 1957—by 1966 it was on all U.S. currency. (Efforts to get it on postage stamps have met with less success: Only a single stamp with a portrait of Lady Liberty and a banner reading "In God We Trust" was released in 1954.)

A 2003 CNN poll found that 90 percent of Americans supported having "In God We Trust" on American cash and coins.

In 2006, the 50th anniversary of its adoption as our motto, "In God We Trust" was added as the state motto of Florida. The phrase now appears on license plates in Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio and more than a dozen other states offer it on specialty plates.

Over the decades, numerous groups have tried to get "In God We Trust" removed from currency and government documents, claiming it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. But those efforts have had little success: In 1979's O'Hair vs Blumenthal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed that the "primary purpose of the slogan was secular."

As recently as June 2019, the Supreme Court upheld a Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that keeping the motto is "consistent with historical practices."

Currently a Change.org petition is pushing back against the South Dakota law: Started by Adelena Chavarria, it targets the U.S. Supreme Court, the South Dakota State Legislature, the Kentucky State House and Senate. If "In God We Trust" appears on classroom walls, Chavarria writes, "there should also be fair representation of others faith, ranging from Allah to Satan."

"Schools should be focused on education, not religion," she adds. Prominently displaying the motto "can make others feel persecuted or isolated because they believe differently—or not at all."

So far her petition has only received 216 signatures.

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