Tennessee schools required to display “In God We Trust” motto

You may have heard that, back in March, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill (vote 81-8!) requiring the U.S. National Motto, which happens to be “In God We Trust”, to be displayed on the walls of all public schools. (The legislature is Republican, but not 91% Republican.)

As WATE in Knoxville reports, this blatantly unconstitutional incursion of religion into the public schools—which are regarded as organs of the U.S. government—was immediately signed by Governor Bill Haslam:

The measure requires schools to display the motto in a prominent location, either as a plaque, artwork, or in some other form.

Whether this motto represents an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion is a question that has invited legal challenges in other states with similar laws.

But the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn, says the bill shouldn’t bother “faithless people” and “people of other faiths” because it’s the motto of the country.

“Our national motto and founding documents are the cornerstone of freedom and we should teach our children about these things,” Lynn said.

Haslam said he’ll look at the legislation when it hits his desk, but added that “at the end of the day, I’ve never been one that thought that having a motto somewhere changes a lot of people’s thoughts.”

Now it seems to me a clear violation of the First Amendment to have as a national motto for a secular country—a country that forbids the intermingling of religion and the state—a phrase saying its citizens trust in God. (That motto is on U.S. currency, too.) The motto is recent as well: it was suggested by Dwight Eisenhower and adopted by Congress in 1956.

According to Wikipedia, though, lower courts have ruled that the mooto isn’t unconstitutional:

The constitutionality of the modern national motto has been questioned with relationship to the separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment. In 1970, in Aronow v. United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the motto does not violate the First Amendment to the Constitution. The United States Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue.

Trying to find out why this happened, I came across a post by Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), called “The Christian hypocrisy of ‘In God We Trust’.” Andrew’s piece goes into the historical background, the court cases, and the legal reasoning used to prop up the motto. It’s a good short piece, and if you’re an American secularist you should read it. In short, the courts have decided that, through repetition, the motto has lost its religious meaning. But that’s absurd! For if it’s lost its religious meaning, it’s lost all meaning, as who do all Americans trust if it be not God? Further, it’s like saying that the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments have lost their religious meanings through repetition. Yet the courts still rule that the Ten Commandments can’t be displayed on public property.

A report from yesterday on the same site shows that Tennesseeans are by no means united in favor of the bill:

The first day of school is coming up quickly and the Distefanos are ready in some ways.

“Fifth grade is pretty hard, so I’m kind of looking forward but kind of not,” said Emma Distefano.

Her mom, Pebby Distefano, says she has mixed feelings hearing that “In God We Trust” will be somewhere at her daughter’s school.

“I believe in God. My daughter believes in God. However, there are also people who do not believe in God that attend the same school that my daughter does and I would not want their religions imposed on my beliefs, as well as I know my beliefs don’t need to be imposed on them,” she said.

WATE 6 On Your Side posted to Facebook on Wednesday asking parents to share their thoughts about ‘”In God We Trust” going up at Tennessee Schools. Benjamin and Sabrina Cooper posted, “We need God in our schools and everywhere else.”

Ruby Daniels commented, “Love it. Put God back in schools.”

Others shared on Facebook their concerns with the new law. Carly Fils posted, “Seriously? It’s ridiculous! Not all students are religious!”

Pati Sexton wrote, “Unconstitutional would be my thought. This is an illegal, government, endorsement of Christianity.”

“There are more religions than just Christianity,” posted Kelly Boring.

And, of course, there’s atheism.

This motto, which several states have approved for display in public schools, is ripe for a legal challenge. As Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF says, “To be accurate it would have to read ‘In God Some of us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”

I’ve heard that the FFRF is well aware of the Tennessee bill and similar bills in other states, and they’re looking into the possibility of a legal challenge. In the meantime, check those greenbacks in your wallet. They bear witness to our trust in God, though they should say this:



h/t: Andrew


  1. Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Surely the era of Trump requires a new U.S. National Motto!

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Make America (But Not Mexico, Never Mexico) Cheap Again!

  2. eric
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “Our national motto and founding documents are the cornerstone of freedom and we should teach our children about these things,” Lynn said.

    If Tennessee schools taught every student that the original (never formally adopted) motto was E Pluribus Unum, what that means, and that IGWT was only made the US motto in 1956 as part of our country’s anti-communism hysteria, I’d be perfectly happy with them hanging it in schools. The problem is, of course, that they don’t “teach our children about these things.” Not-teaching them and letting them assume wrong things about it is the point.

    • Mark R.
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      The statement you quoted stood out to me as well. Especially Lynn’s assumption that the national motto is one of the cornerstones of America’s freedom. Saying the national motto is on equal footing as the constitution as being a cornerstone of freedom is simply delusional. And thinking that the christian god is synonymous with freedom is even more delusional.

      • Taz
        Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        They didn’t say “Constitution”, they said “founding documents”. It’s their weaselly way of including the Declaration of Independence, which, unlike the Constitution, actually mentions a supreme being.

        • eric
          Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          They may not have said ‘Constitution’, but IMO the statement does imply a false equivalency or connection between the motto and US political documents from the 18th century. I have no idea whether the speaker doesn’t know the motto is 100+ years younger, doesn’t care that it is, or simply thinks one of the cornerstones of US freedom was developed after the end of WWII.

    • James
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I prefer Ben Franklin’s motto: “Mind your business”. It has several interpretations, all of which are in line with truly American values.

    • Andy
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      Ah, that’s a nice explanation about the motto(s) – I knew that the new version was from the 50’s but wasn’t clear on how the (far better) original was replaced.

  3. JB
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Does “thank god” have a religious meaning still, or has it lost that meaning through repetition? How about “god bless you” after a sneeze? Is that religious?

    I’m not trying to be snarky… genuinely curious if people believe that some uses of the word “god” have really lost their religious flavor.

    • yazikus
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Depends on who you would ask, I think. Growing up, we were not allowed to use ‘God’ in the ‘thank god’ sense, as that would be taking his name in vain. ‘God bless you’ would have been fine. We weren’t even allowed to say ‘Oh my gosh’ as gosh was a stand in for ‘god’, again, taking his name in vain. And I’m not that old.

    • Laurance
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      I grumble “Gawd damn it!” if I spill something messy on the floor. And I’ll yell “GAWD F***ING DAMN IT!!!” if I really make a major mess.

      I’d say that “god’ has lost meaning for me in these contexts. I do not expect the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to reach down from On High and blast my kitchen into Eternal Hell Fire.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 4, 2018 at 12:08 am | Permalink

        My usual imprecation is “Holy f**king Jesus Christ on a bicycle!”

        I’m not sure where the bicycle came from, I don’t ride one. 😉


    • eric
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s lost it for many if not most adults. Familiarity breeds contempt as you say. My kid still asks why people say those things though, so I think it’s fair to say that a cultural outsider would still likely view it as religious.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think that’s significant here. The Tennessee State Government clearly sees it as important or they would not be making a point of having it displayed in schools.

      Imo courts in the US often come down on the side of either their own political opinion, or public opinion, rather than the law. Obviously, that’s why it’s such a big deal who gets to appoint judges.

      Having “In God We Trust” on money, as a motto, or displayed in schools is clearly unconstitutional. Tennessee probably won’t get away with it because of SCOTUS precedent, but currently no court will have the courage to go against a such a religious population re the country’s motto until public opinion changes imo.

      • eric
        Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        For some reason, the court’s decision that this is a trivial or merely ritual utterance reminds me of their decision that imprecatory prayers (such as voodoo curses) don’t count as attacks or even intent to do harm, because no reasonable person would think they would work. In both cases they don’t take seriously the beliefs of the true believers…for better (in one case) or worse (in the other).

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted August 3, 2018 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          Good point. That reminds me of the Good Ole Boy Bill O’Reilly who thinks Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy because it’s real and religions aren’t. Of course, he said that before he “wrote” Killing Jesus, so maybe he’s changed his mind.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure our thoughts and prayers go out to all the kids of Tennessee. Seriously, was it Tennessee or Kentucky that made the bible their state book?

    How did it get to be the national motto? If it’s on money why not put it on my credit card? And why not just stamp the motto on the foreheads of your kids if it is that important. It would be more personal, eh.

    • eric
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      How did it get to be the national motto?

      Rhetorical question or actual? Probably rhetorical but I’ll assume actual in case some lurker doesn’t know the answer.

      “In God We Trust” has been kicking around since about the civil war era. AIUI some civil war units adopted it as a way of saying God was on their side, not the other. After the war it started appearing on money. The proposal to make it the national motto didn’t really gain any traction until Stalin started suppressing religion in the USSR; then Congress started splatting ‘God’ on things in order to draw a clear distinction between us right-thinking Americans and those ‘godless communists.’ We got the Pledge of Allegiance Goddition in 1954 and the motto Goddition in 1956. The state-level efforts to force it’s display in schools started in the early 2000s.

  5. Posted August 3, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The rising tide of secularism cannot be forestalled by repressive mottos. And no motto will stop religion from dying a little every Sunday as kids are gloomily coerced to temples of vacuous faith as their godless companions get to play at home with dad.

    In my community (northern NM), there is a significant rebellion against the Pledge of Allegiance. Many kids simply sit through it. This nonviolent, passive protest is exciting to see as every kid is forced to think about the words.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Well, if they start taking a knee we will have to call in Trump.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these [school teachers], when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch [out of the classroom] right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

        • enl
          Posted August 3, 2018 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

          Um….. back in 1981, I was kicked out of the classroom for not honoring the prayer. public school. My parents had to come in.

          I have also been hammered at work (public employee, technically) within the last year for not putting my hand over my heart during the pledge to the idol…. sorry, icon.

          I have no illusions here.

          • enl
            Posted August 3, 2018 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

            Clarification: I mean prayer, as in to the christian god, not some heathen ferner god. If you don’t remember Ronnie Raygun…

  6. alexandra Moffat
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    How about “It doesn’t exist” ?

  7. W.T. Effingham
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    When, Not IF a public school’s enrollment has a majority of oh, I don’t know, maybe MUSLIM students, a plaque may need to be prominently displayed…Insh’ALLAH!😀

  8. Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “The motto is recent as well: it was suggested by Dwight Eisenhower and adopted by Congress in 1956.”

    True, but there is another, albeit less direct, reference to God on our national seal that goes back to 1782. The eye above the pyramid represents the “Eye of Providence” and the motto “Annuit Coeptis” means “He [God] favors our undertakings.” Unlike “In God We Trust,” this motto has lost its religious significance not from repetition but from the fact that almost nobody has the faintest notion of what it means.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 4, 2018 at 12:17 am | Permalink


      I always thought it was something vaguely Masonic. It certainly looks kind of incongruous.

      And where did the pyramid come from? I thought the Egyptians had a monopoly on those. (Oops, cultural appropriation…)


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 4, 2018 at 12:18 am | Permalink

        Or Voodoo?

  9. Curt Nelson
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    This, among many other reasons, is why it annoys me to hear people say, “I don’t have any problem with religious people as long as they don’t try to force their religion down my throat.”

    They always do. (And atheists are the strident ones.)

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Therefore, I do have a problem with religious people.

  10. Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    If they posted ‘Allahu akbar’, I bet the problem would become a bit clearer for them.

    • AC Harper
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink


  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I was under the impression that the motto IGWT had passed constitutional muster since it did not focus on any single religion.
    It did not say whether the God in question was Allah, Brahma, Jesus, or Yahweh.

    Historian Mark Noll regards this sort of “accomodationism” as the position of the Founding Fathers in his book “Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present”.

    Personally, I find the slogan vague and sanctimonious.
    IF there is a God (which IMO is quite a big IF), then I would opt for “God helps those who help themselves”, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but found in Aesop’s fables, Sophocles, and Euripedes (though not in Judeo-Christian Scripture).

    • Posted August 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      “God helps those who help themselves” was my mother’s favorite saying. I learned only when she was old that she was an atheist. She kept quiet about it to please my religious father.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 4, 2018 at 12:19 am | Permalink

        I always thought that was an encouragement of shoplifting… 😎


    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 4, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      But is professor Noll a fair judge of the actions–let alone the motives–of the Founders? He is as much a Christian theologian as a historian. From Wheaton (IL) to Notre Dame to. . . ? [Heaven or nothing, no doubt]

  12. Mark R.
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    As far as I can tell, a majority of Americans love money as much as they love god. So in a sense, it is apt to have that motto on our currency. Though it should read “In This We Trust”.

  13. Chet Dickson
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Did ‘they’ miss their chance??

    Formatting on the one dollar bill:

    “In the
    God We Trust”

    Of course on larger denominations it gets messy.

  14. AC Harper
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Actually very few people ‘trust’ God… examples:
    a) most people will go to the doctor rather than pray for a cure
    b) most god-struck people poke their noses into other peoples’ business rather than let God sort them out

    Just sayin.

    • AC Harper
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      …and as an antidote start putting the motto into fortune cookies and Christmas Crackers and see how well that goes…

    • Posted August 5, 2018 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      And in the UK, churches (which tend to have towers or spires) always have lightening rods.

      Somebody (Christopher Hitchins?) once said, never mind lightning rods, if you really trusted God, you wouldn’t put a roof on your church.

  15. rom
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    In Science We Trust

    • AC Harper
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      In science we trust – but replicate.

      • eric
        Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        In science we provisionally trust, until better future evidence leads us to a different conclusion.

  16. mdeschane
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Seen near a cash register: “In god we trust, all others pay cash.”

    I chide my atheist daughter when she wishes god’s blessing when someone sneezes. Offering a blessing to ward off evil spirits has become so ingrained that it almost seems discourteous not to.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Wouldn’t “gesundheit!” work as well?

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        I tried “God damn you” once and it didn’t go well.

  17. Curt Nelson
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I think religion is the answer to The Fermi Paradox. It trips up civilizations with wars and makes them believe in ways of knowing besides science.

  18. busterggi
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    If believers really trust in their god then why do they keep praying for it to change its’ eternal plan just for them?

  19. Taz
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    My hope is that these efforts to sneak god into the classroom will provide enough evidence that a court will have to acknowledge the motto’s religious nature.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I thought you were going to say, acknowledge the importance of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

  20. Posted August 3, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    At least there is a delicious irony in having “In God we trust” on our lucre, but there is no redeeming aspect to this.

  21. Hempenstein
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    The motto is recent as well: it was suggested by Dwight Eisenhower and adopted by Congress in 1956.

    Actually it goes back to the Civil War era and first showed up on the two-cent piece in 1864, with various gyrations after that, disappearing, unfortunately briefly, on gold in 1908.

    But if coin collecting appeals to you, you can avoid IGWT completely by collecting Buffalo Nickels.

  22. Matt Foley
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    It shouldn’t bother anyone because it’s the motto of the country. That’s like saying Trump shouldn’t bother anyone because he’s the President of the country.

  23. Andy
    Posted August 3, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for such a great summary!

  24. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 4, 2018 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “In God we trust”?

    One could well *believe* in God – and every word of the Bible – but I would suggest that the only sensible conclusion from that would be “We don’t trust the bastard an inch!”


  25. Posted August 4, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Trouble is even if enough of us wanted to get rid of the national moto, we would be branded as SJWs.

  26. Phil
    Posted August 4, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The IGWT motto can be modernized.
    gods are only psychological constructs. Therefore.
    Adjust this to 5 syllables.

    May the psychons be with you!

  27. Posted August 5, 2018 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

    Non USAian here.

    Does “congress” in the above refer to all forms of government in the US or just to the Federal legislature?

    • Chris Whitehouse
      Posted August 7, 2018 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      Originally, just to Congress. But thanks to a later amendment, it holds for all Federal, State, and local governments.

  28. Chris Whitehouse
    Posted August 7, 2018 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    If the phrase has lost all religious meaning, then it is very obviously taking the Lord’s name in vain. I’m pretty sure that there is a Commandment against that, not that the rest of them mean much to believers anyway.

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