September 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Students returning to public schools in South Dakota this academic year 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,” but critics, including Americans United, assert that the move is clearly designed to bring a religious message into the schools.

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 (R-Dist. 47) 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 (R-Dist. 24) 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 (R-Dist. 109) 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.”

The phrase “In God We Trust” does not go back to the time of the founders. It first appeared on coins in the North during the Civil War. It was used sporadically into the 20th century, but it was not codified as the nation’s official national motto until 1956 during the Cold War “Red scare” when the U.S. sought to strike a blow against “godless communism” in the Soviet Union. 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, Religious Right groups have been pressing to place “In God We Trust” not just on public schools but on other government offices, license plates and police cars as well. The push got started about 20 years ago by the American Family Association, but it got a big boost recently when the backers of Project Blitz, a Religious-Right-led effort to pass theocratic laws in the states, jumped on board. 

Federal courts have approved the use of the phrase on currency and in other applications, calling it “civil religion.”