The city council of Orem recently voted to adopt “In God We Trust” as its official motto. It’s the same as the official motto of the U.S. and it’s inscribed on the country’s currency.
On Wednesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation began publicly advocating for the city to reverse its decision to adopt this motto.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation describes itself as “the largest national association of freethinkers, representing more than 40,000 atheists, agnostics and others.” Staff attorney Chris Line wrote a letter to the city’s mayor David Young, imploring him to reverse his decision.
“It is inappropriate for the City to adopt a religious motto and to display ‘In God We Trust’ on government property,” Lines said in the letter. “Statements about a god have no place on city-owned property.”
Upon the city adopting the motto, Young said, “While ‘In God We Trust’ has religious connotations, our intention is to signify trust in the broader sense — trust in the greater good, in the strong bonds of our community, and in the ideals that unite us.”
“Orem is a place where all people, regardless of belief or background, are valued and respected,” Young continued.
Alex Koritz, a PR representative for the Orem mayor, emailed the Deseret News the following statement:
In October, the Orem City Council adopted a resolution authorizing the display of the United States national motto, In God We Trust, in the City Council Chambers. The national motto is displayed at government buildings throughout the United States, most prominently above the Speaker’s dais in the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol.
The City’s resolution aligns with both federal and Utah law. ‘In God We Trust’ became the national motto in 1956, by an act of Congress. Utah has adopted requirements that the national motto be prominently displayed within each public-school building. The City’s decision to display the national motto is intended to solemnize public occasions, express confidence in the future, and foster patriotism.
The U.S. has a long history of using “In God We Trust” as the official motto or on license plates and in other areas of public life.
On July 30, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill declaring “In God We Trust” the official motto of the U.S., according to Politico. It replaced the unofficial motto “E pluribus unum,” which is a Latin phrase that means “Out of many, one.”
“E pluribus unum” was proposed as a motto in 1776 and later appeared on the Great Seal of the United States. It has a long history of usage on currency and is inscribed on statues.
Though “In God We Trust” was adopted in 1956, the phrase has a long usage in history. During the Civil War, Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed adding the phrase to U.S. coins. Congress passed legislation that led to the two-cent coin having the phrase inscribed upon it in 1864, Time magazine reported.
An 1814 broadside printing of Francis Scott Key’s “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the poem later adapted into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” contained the lines, “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, / And this be our motto — ‘In God is our Trust.’”
While the phrases differ slightly in language, they have the same meaning. “In God We Trust” is connected to Key’s phrase, per Fox News. By the Civil War, the phrase became used officially by the U.S.
Since its adoption, “In God We Trust” has faced legal challenges, with some arguing that it violates the First Amendment. Historically, the use of the phrase on currency has enjoyed broad support — as high as 90% in 2003, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll.
When the motto has been challenged in court, judges have ruled that its usage does not violate the First Amendment, according to Pew Research. The 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruled in 1970, the first case challenging the motto on U.S. currency, that “its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the federal government in 1994 with the goal of removing “In God We Trust” as the motto and removing it from currency, but a judge dismissed the suit, saying that it was “not a religious phrase.”
In what Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor referred to as “ceremonial deism,” some defenders of the motto have argued that the usage of the phrase is no longer explicitly religious in public life. According to D. Jason Berggren, writing for the Free Speech Center, this concept refers to a phrase becoming “no longer religious in nature” and more of “a historical artifact” from repetition.
“I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution,” O’Connor concluded in her opinion in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow.
In the case of Lines’ argument against Orem using the motto, he referenced the Establishment Clause. “The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause requires ‘government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”
Plantiffs in a 2018 case challenging the inscription of the U.S. motto on currency alleged that including “In God We Trust” violated the Establishment Clause among other clauses.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the plantiffs’ claim and said that printing “In God We Trust” on currency is constitutional, per Reuters.
The motto has withheld legal challenges and critics have objected to it on other grounds.
In The Reflector, Hannah Hadley wrote, “When the phrase first appeared on coins during the Civil War, it was due to public urgence during a time of heightened emotions and religion.” She reasoned that the majority of support of the motto comes from Christians and she does not think that the motto honors the whole population.
Hadley said it would better to adopt a different motto that is “historical” and “inclusive,” offering “E pluribus unum” as an example.
Those who defend the motto, like Jonathan Den Hartgo, say that it can be a positive guide for public life.
“The 16th president (Abraham Lincoln) thus demonstrated that the best religious reflection in public life could lead to humility, self-criticism, care for fellow citizens, and renewal of civic ties,” Den Hartog wrote for The Wall Street Journal. “And that seems like a beneficial reminder from the random coins jangling in our pockets.”