Is law enforcement use of 'In God We Trust' unconstitutional?

County sheriffs and city police departments have put the nation's motto on patrol cars, but critics say this violates the First Amendment. 

Rex Bailey/Lee County Sheriff's Office/AP
Lee County, Va., Sheriff Gary Parsons stands next to a patrol car that displays an 'In God We Trust' decal, Sept. 4, 2015. Parsons said his office spent a total of $50 to have the decals added to about 25 vehicles. He said many people feel their belief system is being trampled and that adding the phrase is a way of pushing back, but a watchdog group says the decals amount to an illegal government endorsement of religion.

In police departments across the country, the official motto of the United States is making a comeback, sparking controversy in an already tense time for community-police relations.  

While it's nothing new, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, and more states are seeing a resurgence of the use of "In God We Trust" on police cars, and the decals – which are not taxpayer funded – aren't welcomed by everyone.   

One Texas police chief responded to a complaint rather bluntly, reported The Associated Press:

"After carefully reading your letter I must deny your request in the removal of our Nations [sic] motto from our patrol units, and ask that you and the Freedom From Religion Foundation go fly a kite," Chief Garcia wrote.

Garcia says the decals were placed on patrol vehicles in the Texas Panhandle town to express patriotism and also as a response to recent attacks nationally on law enforcement personnel.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has led the fight to detach the words, which became the official US motto in 1956, from any government entity. According to its website, the Wisconsin-based organization "works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church."

In 2013, the group unsuccessfully sued the Treasury Department to remove the motto from US currency.

The evolving dialogue surrounding law enforcement spurred the decision to emblazon patrol cars with these decals, says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of FFRF.

"Given the national scrutiny and shock over these police shootings of innocent African Americans, we're seeing the police wrap themselves in the mantle of piety which makes it harder to criticize them," Ms. Gaylor told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Don’t confuse patriotism with piety. God is supposed to stay out of government."

In 1956, a law passed by Congress and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared "In God We Trust" the official US motto. In 2006, the US Senate reaffirmed this, and five years later the House of Representatives did the same when there were efforts to prevent the motto from being engraved in the Capitol Visitor Center.

But who exactly is the "We" in "In God We Trust"? More than one in five Americans are unaffiliated with religion, and three percent strictly identify as atheist, according to the Pew Research Center. Millions of other Americans adhere to nontheistic or polytheistic religions.

Critics say these groups' First Amendment rights are being violated, but no court precedent has held this to be true, despite countless lawsuits.

In 1970, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals held that inscribing "In God We Trust" on currency is not unconstitutional because it "has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise."

And in 2010, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Ninth Circuit had upheld the use of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The plaintiff in that case later appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear his case.

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