Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Use of word ‘God’ survives two recent court challenges

June 2, 2014 by NCC Staff


The use of the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency is being challenged again in the lower courts, but so far, the word’s use in these cases has been upheld by judges.

PledgeOfAllegiance1899-2Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in New York City, said that the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on American currency was constitutionally permissible in the case of Newdow v. United States.

The current suit was brought by the attorney Michael Newdow on behalf of 11 atheists and humanists, and two organizations. Newdow famously won a ruling in 2002 from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that struck the words “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. (That ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court.)

The Second Circuit didn’t agree with the argument that the words violated the First Amendment’s Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

"We have never addressed the question of whether the inclusion of the words 'In God We Trust' on United States currency violates the Constitution or [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] and write today to clarify the law on this issue," the opinion states. "Four other circuit courts have ruled on this question, however, and have found that the statutes at issue do not contravene the Constitution."

Newdow spoke with the website Courthouse News Service after the ruling.

"This is really simple," Newdow said. "We all know that this is unconstitutional. There are people who believe in God. There are people who don't believe in God. The government is supposed to be neutral as to religious beliefs."

Back in 2011, the Supreme Court refused to accept a similar lawsuit brought by Newdow over the use of “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.

Earlier in May, the Pledge of Allegiance survived a challenge in the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court.

In the case of Jane Doe Vs. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, a group of parents, teachers and the American Humanist Association claimed a school district’s Pledge requirement, including the use of the words “under God,” violated the Equal Protection clause of the state’s constitution.

“For those who have been attacking the pledge we would offer this: our system protects their right to remain silent, but it doesn’t give them a right to silence others,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote in the court’s opinion.

The pledge has existed in some form since September 1892 when it appeared in a magazine article that commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Flag Code law passed by Congress that included the Pledge.

The Supreme Court then took the unusual step of ruling against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a legal fight against the Pledge and reversing its own ruling within two years.

In 1943, the Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette thatthe Free Speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Later in the decade, some local groups added the words “under God” to the Pledge and in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill passed by Congress that put the words “under God” within the phrase “one nation indivisible.”

Over the following decades, there have been legal challenges to the use of the two words in the Pledge. Most notably, in 2004 the Supreme Court ruled against Newdow, after he won a lower court decision.

Newdow had claimed that a California school’s pledge requirement violated his daughter’s rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The Court decided in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow that Newdow didn’t have standing to bring suit because he lacked sufficient custody over his daughter.

Recent Stories On Constitution Daily

Constitution Check: Is it time for Indian tribes to stand on their own commercially?

10 fascinating birthday facts about President John F. Kennedy

Supreme Court tracker: Major cases expected in June

10 little-known factoids about Abraham Lincoln

Sign up for our email newsletter