The national motto “In God We Trust,” a fixture on American coinage since the Civil War, and mandated on all coinage and currency since 1955, may remain. A lawsuit by Michael Newdow seeking to remove the motto from U.S. coinage and paper money was rejected by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by unanimous decision on March 11, 2010.
Newdow has a limited amount of time to decide if he wishes to appeal. Rule 13 of the Supreme Court’s Rules allow 90 days to file for a writ of certiorari to consider it. Otherwise, the motto stays safe – till the next challenge.
Will he undertake the appeal? Whether he does or does not, it will not be the end of a battle that actually goes back to 1908 and involves, among others, President Theodore Roosevelt on the side of opponents of the use of the motto on U.S. coins.
Let’s look at the particulars of the current decision and the history of the motto itself. That will prepare all collectors for whatever comes next.
Holding 3-0 for result (but with a concurring opinion in which one justice told the other two that they had no understanding of First Amendment issues – but that he felt compelled to follow circuit precedent), the decision affirms a district court holding in California several years ago that dismissed Newdow’s case.
Next step if Newdow wishes to go further is to file a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is unlikely that the high court will revisit an issue on which there appears to be widespread agreement, even if all of the courts that opine on the issue claim that the motto is non-religious in origin and are totally ignorant of the facts revolving around how God became wrapped up in American money.
Since 1955, the motto has been a requisite part of all coins and currency. The law was passed then because of court challenges to use of the word “God” in the first place not only on coinage, but in something as simple as the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
No one is actually required to take or to say the Pledge; that was decided some 65 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court case of West Virginia v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), which barred compulsory flag salutes. One recent case alleged a youth was intimidated by being required to listen to the Pledge. In a post “9/11” world, that has gone nowhere.
On June 22, 1942, Congress first codified the Pledge in Public Law 642 as “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This was codified in title 36 of the U.S. Code.
A dozen years later, on June 14, 1954, Congress amended Section 1972 to add the words “under God” after the word “Nation.” (This is found in Pub. Law No. 396, Ch.297, 68 Stat. 249 (1954). The Pledge is currently codified as “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” found in title 4 of the U.S. Code, § 4 (1998).
The following year, largely at the instigation of Matt Rothert, later president of the American Numismatic Association, Congress amended the United States Code to require the national motto to be placed on all coins and currency. (Earlier, Congress took action to place the motto on the two-cent piece (Act of April 22, 1864, ch. 64, 13 Stat. 54), and on some gold coins (Act of May 18, 1908, ch. 173, §1, 35 Stat. 164 ).
Paper money was the target of the 1955 law because the motto was already in use on the current coins of the period.
There is some utility in reviewing what the Pledge of Allegiance is, and for that matter, the history of the national motto, “In God we Trust”, where the “we” is not capitalized and all other letters are. (The Newdow court, in its March decision, notes this, too).
Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister with socialist leanings, wrote the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance Sept. 8, 1892 for a popular family magazine, The Youth’s Companion, a Reader’s Digest-like periodical of the era. The original pledge language was “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
A generation later, in 1923 the Pledge was adopted by the first National Flag Conference in Washington, where some participants expressed concerns that use of the words “my flag” might create confusion for immigrants, still thinking of their home countries. So the wording was changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.”
In 1954, Congress after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, added the words, ‘under God,’ to the Pledge. The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer.
Legislation approved July 11, 1955, made the appearance of “In God We Trust” mandatory on all coins and paper currency of the United States. By Act of July 30, 1956, “In God we trust” became the national motto of the United States.
Several courts have been asked to construe whether or not the motto was unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution freedom of religion arguments being raised.
In a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals case arising in Colorado, Gaylor v. US, 74 F.3d 214 (10th Cir. 1996), the Court quoted a number of Supreme Court precedents and concluded that, “The motto’s primary effect is not to advance religion; instead, it is a form of “ceremonial deism” which through historical usage and ubiquity cannot be reasonably understood to convey government approval of religious belief.”
As neat a package as that creates for concluding the controversy, that is simply not the history of the motto “In God we trust.” It also isn’t how it found its way onto American coinage. That story goes back to the bleak days of the Civil War, when the nation’s constitutional mettle was being tested on the battlefields that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead.
From the records of the Treasury Department, it appears that the first suggestion of the recognition of the Deity on the coins of the United States was contained in a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Treasury, Hon. S.P. Chase, by the Rev. M.R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel, Ridleyville, Pa., under date of Nov. 13, 1861.
“One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked, I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins,” Rev. Watkinson wrote to Secretary Salmon P. Chase.
“You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now 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 this 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,” Watkinson wrote. “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”
“From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters. To you first I address a subject that must be agitated,” he concluded.
A week later, on Nov. 20, 1861, Secretary Chase wrote to James Pollock, the Director of the Mint, “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.”
He concluded with a mandate: “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 December 1863, the director of the Mint submitted to the secretary of the Treasury for approval designs for new 1-, 2-, and 3-cent pieces, on which it was proposed that one of the following mottoes should appear: “Our country; our God;” “God, our Trust.”
Dec. 9, 1863, saw this reply came from Secretary Chase: “I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word ‘Our’ so as to read: ‘Our God and our country.’ And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: “In God we trust.”
The Act of April 22, 1864, created the two-cent piece and Secretary Chase exercised his rights to make sure the motto was in the design. By 1866 it had been added to the gold $5, $10 and $20 and the silver dollar, half dollar, quarter and nickel.
As Saint-Gaudens designed the new gold coinage of 1907, at the instigation of his friend President Theodore Roosevelt, the motto was removed for the reason that “Teddy” thought it blasphemous. Congress responded in 1908 by legislatively directing its continuation.
Where all this leads in the 21st century remains an unknown, but an interesting hypothesis can be derived. As Justice William O. Douglas noted in a concurring opinion in the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), “Our Crier has from the beginning announced the convening of the Court and then added “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” That utterance is a supplication, a prayer in which we, the judges, are free to join ...”
Justice Douglas saw little the matter with it. Indeed, he said, “What New York does on the opening of its public schools is what each House of Congress does at the opening of each day’s business.”
The 9th Circuit, in California, by contrast, says “The Pledge, as currently codified, is an impermissible government endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”
An earlier 9th circuit case in 1970 which dealt with a direct attack on the motto on the coinage was briefly discussed in a footnote of the lengthy opinion.
In Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. 1970), the 9th Circuit, without reaching the question of standing, upheld the inscription of the phrase “In God We Trust” on our coins and currency. They cited this case in 2010 as the reason why Newdow had to fail – the precedent that the earlier case created.
But in another case, Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 722 (1977) then-Associate Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist dissented, stating that the majority’s holding leads logically to the conclusion that “In God We Trust” is an unconstitutional affirmation of belief.”
Notwithstanding Justice Rehnquist’s dissent, a more contemporary analysis of his views are more apparent in later cases after he became Chief Justice and they suggest strongly that he had no issue with the pledge or the national motto on coinage.
While the Supreme Court ducked a 2005 opportunity to clarify its own views, it will no doubt conclude that the use of the Lord’s name in the Pledge of Allegiance “as on our coinage in a motto” is just and proper. Indeed, the whole of our nation’s history is filled with examples of exhortations for His approval.
In the Journals of the Continental Congress, Nov. 1, 1777, quotes a committee report recommending to the states a national day of thanksgiving in which further spoke of “the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received ... but also to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties.”
There previously was a contretemps over the motto “In God we trust” not appearing on coinage. “Godless coins” is the cry today, just as a century ago when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the motto removed from the $10 and $20 gold pieces designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The New York Times headline in late 1907 read: “He trusts Congress will not direct him to replace the exalted phrase that invited constant levity.” Almost a century later, reflecting on it, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in a Times Op-ed piece, noted that T.R. said that, “In all my life, I have never heard any human being speak reverently of this motto on the coins or show any sign of its having appealed to any high emotion in him.”
Indeed, Teddy added “the existence of this motto on the coins was a constant source of jest and ridicule.” Congress disagreed and passed the Act of May 18, 1908, ch. 173, §1, 35 Stat. 164, which restored the motto to all coins on which it had previously been utilized. (This did not encompass all coinage at the time).
The motto was restored on the Saint-Gaudens $10s and $20s later in the year.
However controversial the motto was, is or will be, it always has been first and foremost a numismatic issue.