Editor’s note: There have been several cases over the years concering In God We Trust as our national motto. This series of posts is meant as a general guide to those cases, but should not be taken to be expert legal advice.
The following is a guest post by Scott McKeller
In 1970, for the first time, the Federal courts addressed the constitutionality of the National Motto.
Stefan Ray Aronow, of Woodland, CA, had challenged the motto on First Amendment grounds as an establishment of religion. The district court ruled that Aronow did not have standing, and declined to rule on the merits of the case.
The issue of standing is the issue of whether someone has the right to file suit in the first place. For example, I can’t sue you for something you did to my sister-in-law that didn’t involve me. I have to have skin in the game. As Cornell’s Legal Information Institute puts it:
“At the Federal level, legal actions cannot be brought simply on the ground that an individual or group is displeased with a government action or law. Federal courts only have constitutional authority to resolve actual disputes…Only those with enough direct stake in an action or law have “standing” to challenge it.
It isn’t easy to show that you have been materially harmed by a national motto — or in legal terms, to state a claim for which relief can be granted. If applied rigorously, the issue of standing could shield a motto from all judicial scrutiny, even if it is blatantly unconstitutional.”
Aronow appealed. To its credit, the Ninth Circuit didn’t dodge the issue. A three-judge panel sidestepped the issue of standing and ruled on the merits.
Unfortunately, it came up with the wrong answer.
The Court cited Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case about prayer in schools. The New York Board of Regents had stipulated that a specific prayer be recited by students. The Supreme Court struck down the government-composed prayer as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In Aronow, the Ninth Circuit essentially said: “Now that was establishment of religion. The National Motto ain’t in the same league.”
Apparently the First Amendment is dose-dependent. A little bit of establishment is okay.
The Court also cited McGowan v. Maryland. In 1961 the Supreme Court upheld the Maryland Sunday Closing laws, which limited commercial activity on Sundays. For example, stores could sell some kinds of merchandise on Sundays but not others. The ruling acknowledged that Sunday Closing laws were historically rooted in Christian religious practices and remained in harmony with them. It noted however that those laws could be justified on purely secular grounds, and that neither their legislative history nor their practical effect pointed to an establishment of religion.
The McGowan case seems oddly off-target here. There may well be purely secular reasons for Sunday Closing laws, but can there possibly be a purely secular reason to say “In God we trust?” The National Motto is, on its face, an affirmation of religious faith.
Determined to preserve the National Motto at any cost, the Ninth Circuit did the only thing it could do: it ruled that, no, this obviously religious declaration isn’t religious at all.
It is not easy to discern any religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted “In God We Trust” or the study of a government publication or document bearing that slogan. In fact, such secular uses of the motto was viewed as sacrilegious and irreverent by President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, Congress has directed such uses. While “ceremonial” and “patriotic” may not be particularly apt words to describe the category of the national motto, it is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto has no theological or ritualistic impact. As stated by the Congressional report, it has “spiritual and psychological value” and “inspirational quality.”
This paragraph is, well, it’s just weird.
First, the Court cites Theodore Roosevelt’s objection to putting “In God we trust” on the coinage. He thought it disrespectful to sully a solemn religious sentiment by placing it in a crassly commercial context. Two sentences later, by judicial fiat, the Court robs the motto of the very religious solemnity that Roosevelt sought to protect.
For a lawyer, who has received years of specialized training and experience in the corruption of language and the distortion of reality, words mean whatever the Court finds it convenient for them to mean. The ruling might just as well have cited oral argument from Alice v. Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Aronow appealed again. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, in effect agreeing with the Ninth Circuit. The ruling has been cited in other cases such as Kidd v. Obama and Newdow v. Lefevre.
It is now settled law: “In God we trust” doesn’t mean that we trust in God.