Teachers, parents, and students returning to school will see some new classroom décor: Louisiana has just mandated that they display a poster bearing the motto, “In God We Trust.”
The Pelican State is one of at least 17 states that require or explicitly allow schools to display the phrase, which has been the United States’ national motto since 1956. But with a new law that went into effect August 1, HB8, Louisiana has gone one step further, requiring signage in each individual classroom.
“It’s a big escalation,” said Bryan Kelley, an expert who has published on religion in the public education system. “That will be interesting to see if that’s a trend for other states.”
These state mandates are relatively common, and they are also controversial. Their proponents cite the phrase’s national historical significance, and argue that it doesn’t promote one specific religion, but rather the general acknowledgement of a higher power.
“It’s a positive message in this world that throws so many negative things at our children,” Louisiana state Rep. Dodie Horton, a Republican, told a CNN affiliate this week. (Horton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Opponents say that displaying the phrase in public school buildings blurs the line between church and state, and is a thinly veiled appeal to Christian nationalism.
The movement to install the motto in public schools has been driven by influential organizations that promote public prayer, including the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation—a nonprofit organization that works toward “restoring Judeo-Christian principles to their rightful place.”
A history of the phrase
The phrase “In God We Trust” has a long—and controversial—history as an American motto.
It first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864, during the Civil War, at the urging of a Pennsylvania clergyman who wanted to put the Union cause “under the divine protection.”
United States currency still includes the phrase today. (Turn over a dollar bill, and you’ll see it printed on the back.)
But “In God We Trust” didn’t become the country’s official motto until 1956, when it replaced what had been the de facto slogan up until then: the Latin phrase e pluribus unum, meaning “out of many, one.”
The change came as religious language resurged in political rhetoric during the era of McCarthyism—it was also during the 1950s when the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It was tied up in nationalism, anti-Communism, and rallying-around-the-flag rhetoric,” said Kelley.
A 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of respondents approved of the use of the motto on coins. Younger generations seem to feel differently, though. A 2019 survey conducted by College Pulse, an analytics firm, found that 53 percent of college students said the motto should remain on money while 46 percent said it should be removed. (That poll was weighted to reflect the demographics of the college-going population.)
The results broke down along party lines, with self-identified Democrats much more likely to call for removal than their Republican classmates.
For decades, lawsuits have challenged the use of “In God We Trust” on currency, in government buildings, and in schools, on the grounds that exhibiting the motto violates the First Amendment, part of which states that Congress can make no law respecting the establishment of religion.
Lower courts have upheld the use of the motto, though, ruling that its display doesn’t compel people to engage in religion—and in some cases, making the argument that it only has ceremonial, not religious, meaning in context. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the issue in 2019.
And it clearly does have such a meaning for the Congressional Prayer Caucus foundation, for whom displaying “In God We Trust” in public spaces is a core issue. In partnership with several organizations connected to the religious right, CPCF published a playbook for legislation, which includes model policy language for bills requiring the display of the motto in public schools.
Some of the legislation has seen pushback.
Texas, for example, passed legislation last year that schools must hang donated posters bearing the motto. After the Carroll school district received and hung posters from a Christian wireless provider, a student group in the district—the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition—called the donations a “blatant intrusion of religion in what should be a secular public institution.”
In response, the coalition designed posters that displayed the motto written in Arabic and in rainbow lettering—posters that school board officials refused to hang, claiming that the district didn’t have to display more than one copy at a time.
Will states test the ‘legal waters’?
The conversation around religious expression in schools has changed over the past few years, in large part due to recent Supreme Court rulings, said Kelley.
The court has always had to balance two pieces of the First Amendment—the right of individuals to free exercise of religion, and the Establishment Clause.
“The Supreme Court is slowly, within these recent 5-6 years, moving away from concerns with the government imposing religion, and instead asking: ‘Are Christians, mostly, being persecuted because they’re not allowed to open a football game with prayer?’” Kelley said.
He was referring to the 2022 ruling Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the justices ruled 6-3 that Washington state coach Joseph A. Kennedy’s practice of kneeling in prayer was private speech, not government speech.
“I think states will be encouraged by that, and they’ll be more and more comfortable saying, ‘We can test these legal waters,’” Kelley said.
According to his analysis, at least 61 state bills concerning the public education system and religion have been introduced across 30 states in the 2023 legislative session. An Oklahoma panel recently approved a religious charter school funded with public dollars in that state; opponents have already sued to prevent its opening.
He also sees connections to the wave of parents’ rights bills in the past few years, which give parents the right to challenge curricula and other materials. Many of them explicitly state that parents have the right to direct the moral and religious upbringing of their children, he said.
“Religiosity is seen as a core reason to why you might object to a library [book] talking about homosexuality,” Kelley said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as Louisiana’s Public Schools Must Now Display ‘In God We Trust’ in Classrooms