Under God?

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 4, No. 1, August 2003

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

One Nation Under 'god' ?

by Jim Huff


George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson never saw the phrase “In God We Trust” on their U. S. coins or printed dollars.  During Abraham Lincoln’s life, the phrase was not on American coins and currency.  Prior to Lincoln’s death in 1865, the push for a “God phrase” to be included on federal documents began its development.  The words “Our Trust Is In God” was among several phrases suggested in 1863.   A motto evolved into “In God We Trust” and it was used on a few Union coins during the Civil War.  The second national motto was formally adopted in1886.  Since1909 the “God phrase” has been in continuous use on our one-cent coins.  Over time, the phrase was added to other monetary denominations of coins and currency.


Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter to a friend, “My very firm conviction (is) that to put such a motto on coins . . . does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence . . . dangerously close to sacrilege.” Looking back on his assessment, that was the opening shot in the debate over the appropriateness of the phrase.  The debate would continue up to 1970 (Aronow v. United States), 1979 (O’Hair v. Blumenthal, Secretary of the Treasury), and 1994 (Freedom From Religion Foundation case that was dismissed without a trial).


In each of the above cases, the lower courts upheld the constitutionality of  “In God We Trust” because it was a SECULAR phrase.  The word “God” carried NO endorsement of a religious value.  The phrase was nothing more than patriotic and ceremonial words.  “God” was O.K. because it was really only a ceremonial, patriotic, secular = “god”. 


The U. S. Supreme Court has never taken up any of these lower court decisions.  Each time an IGWT motto decision reached the Supreme Court, they have declined to review the decisions.  They did reiterate that, “Our previous opinions have considered in dicta the MOTTO AND PLEDGE (of allegiance) characterizing them as consistent with the proposition THAT GOVERNMENT MAY NOT COMMUNICATE AN ENDORSEMENT OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF.” Allegheny, 492 U.S.


The Constitutional debate over the addition of the 1954 words, “under God,” to the Pledge of Allegiance reached a significant conclusion in June of 2002.  A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the additional words un-Constitutional.  Writing for the majority of the three member panel, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, a Presbyterian Elder, wrote, “Profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion.”  The addition of the word “God” IS A RELIGIOUS ENDORSEMENT.  The full California Appeals Court has rejected calls to rehear the case and reverse the ruling.   Next stop the United States Supreme Court.


Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln never recited the pledge to our flag.  The pledge was first published in 1892.  No reference to God was in the original document even thought the author was a Christian minister.  In 1923, the words “The Flag of the United States” replaced “my flag.”  Still, there was no reference to “God”.  It was not until 1942 that Congress officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance.  No effort was made to include the word “God.”  A year later, 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that school children could not be compelled to recite the pledge.  The Court was protecting the personal, religious, and conscience convictions of each student and their families.


Today, only 25 of our 50 states have laws encouraging the recitation of the pledge in their classrooms.  The words “under God” were added to the pledge on June 14, 1954.  The original, secular, patriotic pledge of 1892 just wasn’t good enough as an honest expression of patriotic support for the United States.  A majority within the U.S. Congress imposed a “religious” term on all our citizens and violated the basic American value of “freedom of conscience.” 


The “God phrase” in the motto or pledge does not promote unity within our society.  Neither phrase promotes an accurate assessment of our national attitude toward religious values.  Neither phrase promotes the true intent of our national values of  “religious liberty” and “freedom of conscience.”  Both phrases only punch holes in the “wall of separation between church and state.”  Both phrases only created confusion in understanding the proper relationship between government and religion.   Both phrases secularized the word “God” and make “god” a political, cultural invention.  Both phrases forced later generations of Americans to determine the constitutionality and social appropriateness of the “God phrases.”


The Supreme Court must take up the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling that “under God” is a religious phrase endorsing a religious belief.   The 2002, 9th Court ruling is in direct contradiction to the 1970, 9th Circuit Court “Aronow v. United States” ruling.   Will the Court uphold the historical concept that government cannot endorse religious viewpoints?   Or, will the court change its historic protections of individual and personal matters of conscience and yield to the political-religious pressures of today?


What happened to the original motto:  E PLURIBUS UNUM (out of many, one)?  What happened to the original intent of, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?”  The answers are coming.  The answers will be momentous! 



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