Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Second Circuit Holds that National Motto, “In God We Trust,” on the Currency is Constitutional

In a decision last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined four other circuits (the D.C. Circuit, the Tenth Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit) in upholding the constitutionality of two federal statutes that require that the national motto, “In God We Trust,” be placed on all coinage and paper currency. The court affirmed the dismissal of the complaint by the district court (Baer, J.).

The panel noted that there was some dispute and confusion about the proper Establishment Clause standard to apply in the case. It settled on the Lemon test, which is the “prevailing test in this circuit.” How odd that there is a “prevailing test” in a circuit that may well have been rejected by a current majority of the Supreme Court. And yet while the Second Circuit applied a test whose viability is in question, it also deferred to repeated Supreme Court dicta on the issue, indicating that the motto and its inclusion on the currency is a reference to our religious heritage and therefore satisfies the “secular purpose” and “primary secular effect” prongs of Lemon. The court then saw fit to rely on statements in several dissenting Supreme Court opinions. Even Justice Stevens in his Van Orden v. Perry dissent believed that “In God We Trust” was ok as “an appendage to a common article of commerce” (not quite sure what that means). And Justice Brennan once stated in dissent that “In God We Trust” did not violate the Constitution because the words have lost “any significant religious content” through “rote repetition.” That, too, was claimed by the panel to be persuasive.

The plaintiffs also brought free exercise and RFRA claims. These were rejected as well.

Latterell on “In God We Trust”

The National Motto, “In God We Trust,” poses a bit of a problem for the “endorsement test,” the most-widely used test for the constitutionality of state-sponsored religious expression.  Under the endorsement test, government cannot communicate a message that suggests either approval or disapproval of religion, even religion in general.  Yet the words  “In God We Trust” appear on American currency, and have since the Civil War.  Some excuse the motto as a historical remnant or an example of merely “ceremonial deism,” and it seems unthinkable that the Court would ever order its removal; but the tension with the endorsement test remains.

Justin Latterell (Emory) has published an interesting-looking historical piece, In God We Trust: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Deathbed Repentance, that focuses  on Abraham Lincoln’s role in establishing the motto.   The abstract is below. – MLM

This article maps several key moments in the evolution of religious symbolism and language on U.S. currency, focusing largely on Abraham Lincoln’s overlooked role in signing the motto ‘In God We Trust’ into law. Interpreting the motto through the lens of Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” — which he delivered just one day after Congress passed the first statute allowing ‘In God We Trust’ to be stamped on U.S. coins — offers a counter-intuitive interpretation of the motto that functions as a deep, ironic, and historically significant critique of religious nationalism.

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