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Is it constitutional for public schools to post "In God We Trust" in classrooms?

The courts have not directly answered this question about the use of the national motto in public schools.1 Now that several states have passed laws requiring public schools to post "In God We Trust" in classrooms, we are likely to see legal challenges to the practice.

Some Supreme Court observers argue that the Court is unlikely to strike down posting "In God We Trust" in classrooms. They point out that in several past cases involving school prayer and holiday displays, the justices have sometimes described references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto as mere "ceremonial deism" that do not rise to the level of government establishment of religion.

Others contend that the courts are generally stricter when applying the Establishment Clause in public schools because impressionable young people at school are a "captive audience." It's possible, therefore, that a judge might view posting "In God We Trust" in public schools as state endorsement of religion, especially if it could be shown that the primary purpose of the posting is to promote religion.

In light of previous Supreme Court cases involving holiday displays, a display of the national motto placed in historical context (e.g., a history of how the motto came to be adopted, or discussion of E Pluribus Unum, our other national motto) might be more likely to be upheld as constitutional. Some schools in states that require the posting of the motto have decided to create an educational display about the history and meaning of both national mottos. In this way, the display serves an academic purpose and is less likely to be perceived as school endorsement of religion.


1 The phrase "In God We Trust" first appeared on coins in 1864, in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was not until 1956, during the Cold War, that Congress established "In God We Trust" as a national motto. Note that Congress adopted the first national motto, E Pluribus Unum, in 1782.

Last updated: Friday, November 16, 2018 | 19:41:51