Students returning to public schools in South Dakota at the end of summer will see something new in their buildings: large signs reading “In God We Trust.”

A new law signed by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) earlier this year requires that the phrase be posted in schools in a prominent location before the 2019-20 school year begins. The size must be at least 12 inches by 12 inches. Some schools have purchased plaques, while others are stenciling the words on walls.

Supporters say the phrase will “instill patriotism.” It’s unclear how a motto that is clearly religious in nature will do this. Public school displays that included the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other historic documents might give students a better appreciation for our country’s foundations and thus foster patriotism, but a religious phrase – even if it is the national motto – can never do that. Patriotism and religious belief are not one and the same. A firm atheist can be just as patriotic as the most ardent believer.

In fact, legislators in South Dakota and other states that have considered these bills have been clear about the religious motivation behind them. In Nebraska, state Sen. Steve Erdman explained he wants to put up the motto because “we have taken God out of everything” and we should “let people see it.” He continued, “The society we live in today is not as good as when we had school prayer and we had God in things."

State Rep. Brandon Reed in Kentucky opined that “we need God in our schools now more than ever” to combat “rampant drug use, increasing school violence, and mounting cases of suicide.” He added, “[W]e are one nation under God, and that reality should be reflected in public life, including in the buildings where our children are being educated.”

In Illinois, Rep. Darrin Bailey issued a press release asserting that his bill will “put God back in our schools … and help give a moral compass to our young people.” He also said that he introduced the bill because he believes “there is power in honoring the name of God” and that “as a God-fearing Christian, I believe that the lack of [Christian principles] is the problem in our country today.”

As I’ve noted before, the phrase “In God We Trust” is not something conjured up by the founders. It first appeared on coins in the North during the Civil War. It was used sporadically into the 20th century and was not codified as the nation’s official national motto until 1956 during the Red Scare when our country wanted to strike a blow against "godless communism" in the Soviet Union. (President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation on July 30, 1956 – 63 years ago tomorrow.) The phrase replaced the much-more inclusive E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), which had served as our unofficial national motto since 1782.

In recent years, far-right Christian nationalist zealots have been pressing to plaster the phrase not just on public schools but on other government offices, license plates and police cars as well. Although this push has been going on for nearly 20 years, it got a big boost recently when the backers of Project Blitz jumped on board. 

Some people behind the drive have argued that the phrase “In God We Trust” isn’t really religious, and one hears more than an echo of that in the assertion from South Dakota that it’s merely patriotic. Such claims, to be blunt, are ridiculous. “In God We Trust” sends a series of religious messages: It says there is one God (not five, not 20, not no God); it asserts that the nation trusts in this God, and you should too. After all, that’s what real Americans do. If you choose not to, you’re not only a lesser-type of citizen, your very loyalty may be suspect.

Unfortunately, federal courts have never taken this issue seriously, and the recent conservative stamp put on the judiciary by the Trump administrations means that won’t change anytime soon.

That’s unfortunate. As the nation’s religious demographics continue to shift, a conversation on whether it makes sense to have a national motto that excludes millions of our citizens is long overdue.