Today in 1864: "In God We Trust" first appears on U.S. currency

April 22, 2011

Today in Legal History147 years ago, Congress passed a law that would spark one of the more heated constitutional debates.

The law, the Coinage Act of 1864, added the phrase, “In God We Trust” to the 2-cent coin.

The term was “coined” for the purposes of the Act, so it was the first time the phrase appeared within any U.S. government-issued materials whatsoever.

It was passed near the height of the Civil War, which found increased religious sentiment among the U.S. populace because of the horrors the war brought. The phrase was intended in part to increase national unity.

Another act of Congress the next year allowed the Mint Director to add the phrase to all gold and silver coins, and another Act in 1873 allowed the Director to add the phrase to any coin.

In 1955, Congress passed a law that required the motto on all currency.

This law was part of a series set in the backdrop of the Cold War as an answer to the atheism of the Soviet state.

It was in 1954 that Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 that the national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.”

The practice has, predictably, been challenged on its constitutionality; specifically, on grounds that it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against Congress’s establishment of a national religion.

1864 Two CentThe first challenge, 1970’s Aronow v. U.S., never made it past the appeals circuit.  The court, in a two and a half page opinion, found no “religious significance attendant the payment of a bill with coin or currency on which has been imprinted ‘In God We Trust’.”

This sentiment – that there is nothing religious about “In God We Trust” – seems to be the basic assumption in court.

The Aronow rationale was repeated in several court of appeals cases, such as 1978’s O’Hair v. Blumenthal, and most recently in 2010’s Newdow v. Lefevre.

Newdow is interesting in that the claim was made by an atheist who argued that the motto’s presence on currency established the government’s belief in monotheism; however, the court more or less reiterated Aronow as binding precedent.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue.

The closest it has come is 1984’s Lynch v. Donnelly.

The case involved a constitutional challenge to a Christmas display by the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

The Court ruled in favor of the city, upholding the display’s constitutionality.  In the opinion, the motto is mentioned simply as an example of the nation’s religious heritage, implying its constitutionality.

Regardless of its constitutionality, it may be easier, as a practical matter, to let the law stand.

A ruling otherwise may require the recall of all currency with the motto, an extremely costly and time-consuming chore.

So as it stands today, the motto is constitutional.

Whether that changes in the future is dependent on the religious sentiments (or lack thereof) of future judges and Supreme Court Justices.