Special Edition

Historical Analysis of the American Civil Liberties Union

“In God We Trust” and the ACLU, 1955-1959

Randy Kamcza
Bowling Green State University


The founding fathers created the framework for our country that would not be controlled by religion. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, only seven percent of the people in the thirteen colonies belonged to a church. Yet, by the 1950s the country they had created was so controlled by religion that a vote against “In God We Trust” as the national motto or a vote against “Under God” being added to the Pledge of Allegiance would be confused with a vote for communism and a vote against America. The Founding Fathers’ first amendment to the constitution stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus creating what is commonly called the Separation of Church and State (also known as Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause). Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States exclaimed,

I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites, to support roguery and error all over the earth.

Jefferson was not the only founding father to believe that Christianity was wrong for the United States; John Adams also declared that there should be a strong separation between church and state when he stated,

The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history.

Thomas Paine wrote in his book, The Age of Reason ,

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.

James Madison also talked openly about the corruption involved with having a Christian nation by stating, “ Religion and government will exist in greater purity, without rather than with the aid of government.” Jefferson, Adams, Paine, and Madison were not the only founding fathers to talk about the need for a strong separation of church and state, but they expressed the strongest opposition.

Yet, by the 1950s the majority of people believed the United States was a Christian nation and a nation that had always been Christian, indicating the great power that Christians had gained from the late 1700s up until the middle of the 1900s. At some point between the birth of the United States and the 1950s, a series of events created a change in the interpretation of the words of the Founding Fathers. In the 1950s there were numerous changes in the United States including the following: in 1954 the words “Under God” were added to the pledge of Allegiance; the 84 th Congress passed a joint resolution changing the national motto of the United States of America from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust” in 1956; and American currency was mandated to state “In God We Trust” in 1957 .

During the 1950s, and for a couple of decades before, the ACLU fought numerous church and state cases. In 1947, the ACLU sponsored the Everson case, in which New Jersey provided public funds for the bussing of parochial school children. Although the ACLU lost its case, it established the organization as one of three organizations that would fight for separation of church and state. The other two organizations were the Protestants and Other Americans United and the American Jewish Congress. In 1949 the NYCLU and the American Jewish Congress brought a lawsuit against the Sunday closing law in New York and failed to get the case heard until many years later. In 1952 the ACLU challenged in-school Bible readings in the McCollum case and yet again failed.

The 1950s were a period of time when God was at his greatest popularity in the United States of America; the ACLU had not been able to win any separation of church and state cases in the 1940s. Why did the ACLU take the stances that it did as one of three organizations that would take separation of church and state cases entering into the mid fifties? Did the ACLU consider the creation of “In God We Trust” as the national motto a violation of the First Amendment? Did the ACLU consider the addition of “In God We Trust” to U.S. currency a violation of the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause? Did the anti-communist hysteria that pervaded the fifties play any role in the decision of Congress to make this change in the currency and the national motto? What organizations did the ACLU help and which organizations did the ACLU not help and why? Did the ACLU take the same stance in 1960 as it did entering into the mid fifties? The ACLU was created to defend all rights granted in the First Amendment including freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. What was the appropriate response when some people asked why “God” was being added into the daily lives of American and whether it was a breach of the separation of Church and State? How would the ACLU respond in an era that communism was so feared?

ACLU in the 1950s

Samuel Walker, who wrote the history of ACLU (1999), recognized that, during the 1950s, the Catholic Church and the ACLU disagreed on many issues, especially censorship, birth control, and prayer in school. According to Walker, Father Robert Drinan accused the ACLU of magnifying the establishment clause and ignoring the religious liberty section of the First Amendment. Drinan was a tenacious advocate for social justice and fundamental decency, but he also pointed out that no practicing Catholics served on the Board of Directors on the ACLU. Walker claimed that the charge that the ACLU was antireligious hurt the ACLU’s leadership. The leadership of the ACLU recognized this, and therefore the national office of the ACLU downplayed all separation of church and state issues in the late 1950s. The claim that the ACLU was antireligious hurt the organization so much that it dismantled its Religion Committee in the late 1950s. When it came back into existence in 1959, it included prominent clergy who supported the accommodationist position. The accommodationist position adapted to the viewpoint of the opposition; therefore the clergy members of the new Religion Committee believed that there should be a separation between Church and State. With these new appointments the ACLU hoped to deflect attacks from anti-communist organizations like the American Legion. In the late 1950s, according to Walker, public attitudes towards separation between church and state questions began to change, at least in the north. The Philadelphia affiliate of the ACLU, for example, noticed an increase in the number of complaints regarding conflicts between church and state in the greater Philadelphia area. Walker’s interpretation of the ACLU’s stance in the late 1950s is that the organization was so afraid that the ACLU would be looked at as a communist organization that the organization did not take any God-related cases. The ACLU did not want to take any issues that attacked “God,” not only because of the fear of the communist label but also because the ACLU did not win many cases in the previous decades. Walker was not the only author to look at Church and State issues during the fifties.

Author William Donohue (2006) examined the approach of the ALCU on those issues. He also looked at conflict between the ACLU and the Catholic Church in the 1950s and criticized the Union for becoming more of an anti-religious organization then in the recent past. Donohue quoted Roger Baldwin, the Founder of the ACLU, as stating “the record will show a lot of foolish statements and motions by somebody or other connected with the ACLU, like, for instance, taking ‘In God We Trust’ off coins or postage or denying Congress its chaplains.” Donohue argued that Roger Baldwin did not agree with the stance of trying to remove “In God We Trust” from United States currency, and furthermore he considered some actions of ACLU members as foolish. Donohue also stated that “in its passion to stem religious influences, the ACLU has held, since 1954, that the insertion of the words ‘under God’ into the pledge of allegiance is a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” Donohue again charged the members of the ACLU with trying to eliminate the influence of religion on American culture as early as 1954. Donohue believed that the ACLU was attacking all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Donohue’s claim that the ACLU was attacking all religion was based upon the fact that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have a “God,” and that was the God that the ACLU was fighting against being in the pledge. Donohue’s interpretation of the ACLU stance in the 1950s was that the First Amendment ought to create a wall between Church and State; in fact he called it an iron wall. Donohue, like Walker, also quoted Father Robert Drinan,

The Church-State positions taken by the ACLU are not nonpartisan; they are the result of one theory of the role of the state in a pluralistic society. A theory not subscribed to by a large body of eminent constitutional law experts in this country and not at all considered to be nonpartisan by many religious groups.

Relying on Drinan, Donohue argued that the ACLU stance on religion was too extreme and inconsistent with the organization’s principles.

In The Words We Live By (1997), Brian Burrell, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, examined the origins of the creeds, mottoes, and pledges that have shaped American life. Burrell believed that many Americans did not understand the meaning of these creeds, mottoes, and pledges that they see or recite almost daily. Two of the subjects that Burrell examined were the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto of the United States. An ordained Baptist minister, Francis M. Bellamy, created the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. On October 19, 1892, the first Columbus Day, teachers across the United States read a proclamation from President McKinley, which instructed that all students were to recite the words “ I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” and then salute the flag. Although the Bellamy pledge was widely accepted, it was not put into law until the first day of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In 1923 the National Flag Code Committee added the words “the flag of the United States” into the pledge to remind immigrants. Then a year later they added “of America” so that Mexico, another country with states that are united, would not benefit from the pledge. In 1953 Representative Louis Rabaut of Michigan, reacting to the suggestion of a constituent, drafted a House resolution proposing that the words “Under God” be added to the Pledge. Burrell also claimed that Reverend George M. Docherty, the pastor at President Eisenhower church, should get some of the credit. Docherty remarked,

The Pledge is something that is the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase “the United States of America,” it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer and sickle flag in Moscow.

Docherty believed that as a nation, Americans must show what makes the U.S. different from the Soviets, and that was the belief in God. Docherty also made the case that the inclusion of the words “Under God” was entirely a political act and not a religious one.

According to Burrell, in the mid-fifties it was too easy to play upon Cold War fears; those who objected to the phrase by insisting upon the separation of church and state had no chance against the religious patriotism of the era. On June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill into law that created the first Flag Day and added the words “Under God” into the Pledge. As Eisenhower signed the bill he stated, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief.” According to Burrell, Eisenhower knew that were would be court challenges because of the words “Under God,” but he felt confident that “Under God” would stay in the United States Pledge because people who challenged the pledge would get their own patriotism challenged.

While the Pledge of Allegiance was in the process of changing, the National Motto was also about to change. In 1953, while attending services at a Church in Chicago, Matthew Rothert, an Arkansas businessman, noticed that the motto “In God We Trust” appeared on the coins in the collection plate, but not on the paper money. It occurred to him that the nation’s currency, which circulated all over the world, did not carry this important message. According to Burrell, Rothert gained the support of some well-placed individuals who managed to get the suggestion worded into a bill that would eventually pass into law, creating “In God We Trust” as the United States national motto. In July 1955, President Eisenhower signed the bill establishing the new motto, setting in motion events that led to “In God We Trust” being printed on all American currency in 1957. According to Burrell, the plan to change over all denominations of bills called for a gradual replacement of plates over a dozen years, but Americans that opposed the change hastened the phasing-in process. By 1962 all bills would have “In God We Trust” printed on them, only five years after the bill was passed, thanks to Madalyn O’Hare. O’Hare challenged prayer in school and won in 1962, leading many to believe that “In God We Trust” would be next if the change to currency were not fully implemented immediately. Burrell’s interpretation of “Under God” being added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as the United States national motto were very similar. He believed that the fear of communism was the major reason that people did not disagree with the changes but that history was the reason that these bills were even started. Very prominent people advocated both “Under God” and “In God We Trust” many years earlier but neither was officially changed by law, and it took an event like the Cold War to make them law.

Samuel Walker, William Donohue, and Brian Burrell all had different interpretations of why “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the new national motto for the United States, but they agreed that the fear of communism was a major factor. The difference between Walker and Donohue was that Walker looked at the whole organization, while Donohue looked at individual members of the organization. Donohue mentioned the views of Rodger Baldwin, and how he thought that the organization was failing the original intent of the organization by defending church and state issues. Walker looked at the general agenda for the organization. Walker mentioned that the ACLU attempted Church and State cases in the early fifties, but by the late fifties the idea that the organization was a communist organization stopped the organization from taking any more church and state cases. Donohue wanted to show that not everyone in the organization was agreeing with the general agenda for the ACLU, whereas Walker wanted to show that the organization was cohesive even in times of trouble. Although Burrell did not mention the ACLU, he did give a very clear argument that the American population was in great fear of communism. Burrell also mentioned that Eisenhower knew that it was controversial but that no one would argue the new bills because the challenger would have his own patriotism challenged. Burrell’s opinion agreed with Walker’s that it was very dangerous to challenge these bills and that is why the ACLU stayed away. In the fifties the ACLU had many communications with other organizations regarding “In God We Trust” issues. The organization also had many conversations among themselves, discussing the actions that they should take. The major organizations that were in correspondence with the ACLU on this issue during this period of time were the American Humanism Association, American Ethical Union, the Freethinkers of America, and the American Jewish Congress. Although the majority of the correspondence involved the national ACLU, the New York affiliate of the ACLU was also interested in the issues.

The Motivation for “In God We Trust”

Matt Rothert, the owner of Camden Furniture Company, wrote a letter on November 27, 1953, to Secretary of the Treasury Humphrey and to President Eisenhower. Rothert was a small town Arkansan businessman who was also a member of the American Numismatic Association. During the annual Chicago Furniture Market, Rothert was in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago when he happened to pay close attention to the appearance of the money in the collection plate. Rothert realized that the coins had “In God We Trust” printed on them, but the paper money did not. He knew that paper money was accepted currency all over the world and that coins were only being used in the United States. In the letter to Secretary of the Treasury Humphrey and Eisenhower, Rothert stated that it was very important that some action be taken at once to see that “In God We Trust” also be placed on the paper currency.

On May 17, 1955, the United States House of Representative’s Committee on Banking and Currency discussed H.R. 619, a bill that would place “In God we Trust” on all U.S. currency. In this meeting the chairman, Brent Spence (KY), gave the floor to Charles E. Bennett (FL) to introduce his bill and to take any questions. Bennett first stated that there was no opposition to the legislation and that it would cost no money, therefore the bill already had two strikes for it. According to Bennett, he received a letter from a friend, Donald K. Carroll, the commander of the American Legion. In this letter Carroll asked Bennett why the United States coins bear the motto “In God We Trust” but the currency does not. Bennett replied that it was merely an accident of history, for which there was no adequate explanation. Bennett related the history of “In God We Trust” on the United States coins. In 1864 the first coin to be inscribed with “In God We Trust” was the two-cent bronze coin. The motto was inscribed on all coins except the dime, nickel, and penny by 1908. That year a bill was introduced that would inscribe all coins with “In God We Trust.” Bennett continued that he felt it was not necessary to make a case for the desirability of inscribing the coins with the motto. He stated that Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase had already done so when he stated in 1898, “No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in his defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on out national coins.” Bennett concluded that he sincerely hoped that the committee and Congress would give the bill prompt approval and stated,

In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom we should continuously look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and by His guidance. As long as this county trusts in God it will prevail.

Congressman Multer (NY) asked Bennett if he knew the origin of “In God We Trust.” Bennett responded that the words were taken from the Star Spangled Banner, that these key words were very important to the people of the United States during the “War between the States,” and that was the reason that “In God We Trust” was added to the coins in 1898. Multer then asked Bennett why he identified the Star Spangled Banner as the first mention of “In God We Trust,” when the phrase had been around for many years. Bennett responded, “I am quite confident that the phrase in essence is contained in some of the earliest religious utterances probably going back to almost prehistoric times. It is a very, very old concept, and undoubtedly is many thousands of years old, probably much prior to discovery of America.” Multer then stated,

I feel very strongly that it was a mistake to put it on coins in the first place and this is perpetuating a grievous error. I think this is the base of all of those who believe in God; to put anything like that on anything so materialist cancels out coins and currency, I don’t think anybody is made more religious by putting it on the coins and currency.

Multer continued, “I asked how many coins and what currency have upon it the words “In God We Trust” and I must have asked fifty different people and none of them could answer.” Multer then concluded, “Whether they are giving to God or charity or anything else, they don’t give any more or any less because it has the words “In God We Trust,” and I don’t believe it has inspired one single person to be more religious because we have those words on our currency.”

Chairman Spence made a statement,

I think if there ever was a nation that has, by its course, demonstrated that God has a hand in its making and it progress, it is this country. I always believe that God was present in the Convention Hall where our Constitution was formed, because in all history there was never a charter like ours, there never was one that served for so long the best interest of millions of people.”

The chairman then introduced Herman P. Eberharter (PA) and Oren Harris (AR) who both introduced bills that would add “In God We Trust” onto all currency. Eberharter’s bill was in response to the American Legion post in Allegheny County (PA), which asked him in a very similar manner as Bennett to support the addition of the language onto currency. Earlier it was mentioned that Matt Rothert encouraged the Harris bill. Eberharter and Harris did not take any questions and agreed that their bills would be considered in conjunction with the Bennett bill. Moments before the committee went into executive session to consider the bills, Congressman Lawrence Fountain (NC) stated,

It seems to me that we in America have in many instances indicated our belief in the existence of God. The Bible begins with the words “In the beginning, God” and I think more and more it is essential for us to recognize the fact that we as individuals and as a nation are merely the custodians of the things which God has so graciously granted to us, and that by having this inscription on our coins and on our currency we are not in any way indicating that we have faith in the coins, but we are indicating to the contrary, because of the prosperity in America and because of the goodness of God we have become a prosperous and powerful nation, and I think that inscription indicates that even though this coin is necessary, it is not in this coin we trust, but it is in God that we trust, and it indicates to the world that even though sometimes we are guilty of shortcomings, and in believing that we can rely upon the material, the material is not the thing upon which we should rely, but it is God.

The House of Representatives then went into executive session where it passed House Bill 619, which then continued to the Senate’s committee on Banking and Currency.

On June 27, 1955 the United States Senate’s Committee on Banking and Currency debated the bill. In this meeting Senator Mike Monroney (OK) began by stating, “It is a minor bill. I’d like to get rid of it before we get to the Defense Production Act.” Senator Monroney continued by saying that he thought the bill was so unanimously supported by the subcommittee, that he did not call hearings. He also stated that he did not schedule any public hearings on the matter and admitted that he did not even have any meeting on the issue. Monroney’s only action was to write to the other members of the committee to see if everyone was agreeable with taking the bill to the full committee. The committee members were all in favor of sending H.R. 619 to the full committee. Monroney mentioned in his report to the full committee that he had received a telegram from the National Liberal League that stated, “I respectfully request your committee to hold public hearing on the present bill to place ‘In God We Trust” on all future money. Signed Walter B. Stevens, Vice President.” Once Senator Monroney reported the dissatisfaction of the National Liberal League to the full committee, Senator Wayne Morse (OR) also stated that he had received letters from groups that were concerned about this issue. Morse stated that he fully supported the bill, but was utterly surprised by the letters coming into his office. Morse reported that he had received a phone call from some group that had the words Ethical Society in its name. According to ACLU records this was most likely the American Ethical Society. According to Morse this organization complained to him that “there is not any proof that there is a divine being, that apparently there seems to be an all-controlling force that directs the human activities but don’t know whether it is God or not.” Morse continued by stating that he had also received protests from other humanist groups and other organizations that look at people’s religious rights. Morse concluded by stating he had received a half dozen messages over the weekend, and he felt he had the obligation to report them. Senator Homer Capehart (IN) then made the motion that the bill be reported favorably. The Chairman then asked if anyone would second the motion, and Senator Bennett, the creator of the bill, seconded. The Chairman added that the bill should go into effect the next time the mint changed the printing plates, to save money and avoid disrupting the printing process. Senator Capehart agreed, and the Chairman asked who was in favor of the motion. The room echoed “aye,” and there was no opposition to the bill. The bill was added to the Senate calendar, and the committee continued by debating the Defense Production Act. While the House and Senate were debating the proposed bills that would place “In God We Trust” on the currency, there were some organizations that were fighting to prevent the government from imposing religion on the country.

The Opposition to “In God We Trust”

In 1955 the ACLU was contacted by the American Ethical Union regarding Eisenhower’s February 20 th speech on ABC-TV. In Eisenhower’s self proclaimed “Back to God” speech he stated,

Without God, there could be no American form of Government, no American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first—the most basic—expression of Americanism. Thus the Founding Fathers saw it; and thus with God’s help, it will continue to be.

Carl von der Lancken, of the American Ethical Union, believed that the indication that loyal American citizenship must be based upon a belief in God tended to distort the public mind and as an end result led to anti-intellectualism and overt acts of bigotry, as well as to actual violations of civil rights. The American Ethical Union requested that the ACLU join it to send a message to President Eisenhower that his words were very powerful and explain to the President the implications of his remarks. The ACLU responded back to the American Ethical Union that President Eisenhower was speaking as an individual and not as a government representative. The response also stated that the ACLU attempts to be “realistic” about those matters and that your organization can be sure that the ACLU will be on the watch for any “practical” matters that invade the constitution’s separation of church and state. The ACLU was only willing to take cases that it believed were not ridiculous and that it believed had the ability to win. During the fifties the ACLU was very selective about the organizations it pledged to help. One of these organizations was the American Humanism Association.

During the summer months of 1955 the bill to place “In God We Trust” on the United States Currency continued to progress toward becoming law. On May 26, 1955, The United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 619 in full session, with no objections. On June 27, 1955 the United States Senate passed H.R. 619 in full session, with no objections. On July 11, 1955 President Eisenhower signed H.R. 619 into Public Law 140.

On February 24, 1956, subcommittee number four of the committee of the Judiciary met in Room 346 of the House Office building at 10 a.m. In this meeting the chairman of the subcommittee, James B. Frazier, Jr. (TN), introduced Congressman Bennett. Bennett first introduced his resolution, H.J. Res. 396, which stated, “Resolved by the Senate and House of representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the national motto of the United States is hereby declared to be “In God We Trust.” Bennett introduced the bill by stating that he became interested in the national motto when he was working the previous year on H. R. 619 which made “In God We Trust” inscribed on to all United States currency and coins. Bennett mentioned that the bill passed on July 11, 1955, as Public Law 140. When Bennett was researching the bill he found that the United States had no national motto, but instead three mottos that graced the officially adopted seal of the United States. The first motto that can be found on the national seal was E Pluribus Unum—Out of many, One. The Second motto that can be found was Annuit Coeptis, “God has favored our undertakings,” and third was Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A new order of the ages.” The last two mottos can be found on the back of the national seal of the United States, while E Pluribus Unum can be found on the front. Although these three mottos are on the United State seal, Bennett believed that “In God We Trust” had also been adopted as a motto when it was indirectly officially recognized in the Star Spangled Banner. Bennett believed that in sponsoring this resolution, he was designating a clear national motto of inspiration in “plain popularly accepted English.” Bennett also believed that it would be of spiritual and psychological value to the United States to have “In God We Trust” as the national motto. According to Bennett, “More than any other phrase it expresses the spiritual and moral values upon which our country was founded and upon which it depends for survival, in times that imperialism and materialism seek to attack and destroy freedom.” The chairman, James Frazier, asked if there were any more questions, to which Robert Ashmore (SC) responded “No,” and Bennett was thanked for his statement to the committee.

The American Humanism Association wrote to Alan Reitman, associate Director of the ACLU, in May of 1956. The American Humanism Association wanted to inform the ACLU that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee was looking at a bill to replace the United States motto with “In God We Trust.” The letter noted that there were no scheduled hearings on the issue and that currently there were also no senators opposing this issue. The American Humanism Association also pointed out that one of its members, Professor George Axtelle, a chairman in New York, released a news release that opposed the bill. During the same period of time in May of 1956 Alan Reitman asked Louis Joughin, a fellow ACLU Assistant Director, if ACLU could place a few stumbling blocks in the progress of the bill, perhaps working with some other organizations to do so. Alan Reitman wrote that he knew that the ACLU was pressed on all fronts with cases, but he was concerned about its inattention to Church-State cases. Reitman was also concerned that no affiliate of the ACLU expressed an interest in taking the case against the “In God We Trust” bill.

Patrick Murphy Malin, Executive Director of the ACLU, sent a letter on June 25, 1956, to numerous senators: Arthur Watkins, Everett Dirksen, William Jenner, William Langer, Alexander Wiley, Joseph O’Mahoney, Price Daniel, John McClellan, Thomas Hennings, Olin Johnston, Estes Kefauver, and James Eastland. In this letter Malin stated that he had learned that a bill under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee would change the national motto from “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust.” Malin stated that he believed that, if the bill were enacted into law, it would violate the constitutional guarantee that there shall be no establishment of religion in this country.” Malin also mentioned that it would cause a religious test for government employees, which also would be a violation. Malin continued,

What, may we ask, will be the position of a non-believer who by the force of circumstances is obliged to make known that he cannot in all conscience accept “In God We Trust”? Although he has every right to make that rejection, in a land of religious liberty, he will find himself thereby coincidentally rejecting the motto of the civil government to which he has full loyalty. Inevitably he will be embarrassed, and the realities of life suggest that he will suffer in fact.

As the Executive Director of the ALCU, Malin proclaimed that the ACLU national office was concerned about the safety of non-believers in America, while still mentioning that he understood that the majority of American people do trust in God. But, Malin believed that they worship God in their homes and in their hearts, not in government. Therefore Malin accepted and understood the idea that when “In God We Trust” became the United States national motto, a link was forged between civil loyalty and doctrinal belief. Malin closed by urging the senators to request a hearing on this bill in their individual committees. Malin did not release these letters to the public, and the congressmen neglected to mention his letter in any of their testimonies in the subcommittee congressional hearings.

The Opposition for “Under God”

The Freethinkers of America in September of 1956 sent out letters, asking people to oppose the addition of “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance. “Under God” had been added to the Pledge in 1954 and the Freethinkers of America wanted to challenge the introduction of the words “Under God” into the public classroom. In this letter Joseph Lewis, the president of Freethinkers of America, started out by identifying this as the most serious situation in the history of free thought. Lewis claimed,

I sometimes believe that the forces of organized religion are stronger today politically speaking than ever before in the history of our country. Through the chaplains in our armed forces, coupled with the religious fanatics in Congress, we are forced, almost daily, to submit to some form of religious observance in the performance of our civic duties.

In this letter Lewis informed readers of the organization’s magazine that it is obnoxious to all free thinkers and intelligent people to have believed that the replacement with “In God We Trust” as our national motto and the addition of “Under God” into our pledge was constitutional. Lewis stated that it was a violation of the most basic and fundamental rights of every American. Lewis also admitted in his letter that it would be a long and bitter battle in the courts, to get this corrected. Lewis reminded his readers that the organization, along with individual members, will be targeted with much abuse and vilification, but they must not stop because of threats. “We have instructed our attorney to proceed immediately. The Papers are now being prepared and will be served upon the proper legal authorities in the next few days,” stated Lewis. The letter concluded with a plea for money. The organized religions have unlimited sums of money, and the Freethinkers of America need as much as it can get to fight this giant, organized religion.

When Rowland Watts, a staff director of the ACLU, discovered the letter directed to the members of the Freethinkers of America, he became very interested. Rowland Watts then replied to Lewis on September 24. In his letter Watts proclaimed that he was very much interested in the action that the Free Thinkers of America had taken in arguing the constitutionality of “Under God” being in the pledge. Watts asked Lewis if it would be possible to examine the files that the Freethinkers of America had created. Watts also expressed great interest in getting the ACLU involved in the matter.

A month after Joseph Lewis wrote to his readers asking for money to fight the addition to the pledge, there was another conversation between Lewis and Rowland Watts. In a second letter, Watts wrote,

Thank you for notifying me that the “Under God” case is before the Supreme Court in Albany [NY] on November 9 th [1956]. As you no doubt know, the ACLU, rarely if ever, enters a case at the lower court level. I have presented this matter to our committee, however, and it has expressed an interest in possible participation at a point where we would be most beneficial.

Watts then, apologized to Lewis for missing his phone call and reminded Lewis that he wanted to be kept up-to-date on the cases. The two responses to the letters were very different. In the first letter Rowland and the ACLU seemed to want to know what the Freethinkers of America were doing and how they could help. Only a month later Rowland and the ACLU did not want to help the Freethinkers, only when the organization asked for its help. Rowland along with the rest of the ACLU wanted to look like they were helping in cases, but not commit people, money, or effort to the cause. The ACLU knew that it did not want the scrutiny of defending the Freethinkers, but it also understood that the Freethinkers were correct in their assessment that “Under God” was unconstitutional.


In the fifties the ACLU and a majority of its members considered the creation of “In God We Trust” as the national motto a violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU and the majority of its members also considered “In God We Trust” placed on United States currency and “Under God” into the pledge of allegiance violations of the First Amendment. But during the fifties the ACLU did not attempt to take on “God” cases for many reasons. The ACLU was simply too busy with other cases that it did not have the power to take on a huge issue like religion, nor did the ACLU want to. The ACLU also knew that there were other organizations fighting Christianity, including the Freethinkers of America and the American Jewish Congress. The ACLU seemed to want to motivate and help these organizations to fight for the First Amendment even if it could not get involved directly. The ACLU did not explain its reluctance to take these cases as a response to the anti-communist climate of the day; yet in congressional hearings communism was a major factor in the reasons these laws were created. The ACLU may have feared having the organization’s name affiliated with the word communism. Like President Eisenhower stated, if people disagree with “In God We Trust” then their own patriotism would be challenged. The ACLU and its members believed this, and it stayed away at all cost. Even though the ACLU had a close relationship with the Freethinkers of America, the ACLU believed that an association with the Atheists could have hurt the ACLU by confusing it with communism. Yet, the ACLU did mention that it was so busy with other projects, including trying to clean up its reputation when it came to communist cases. The New York affiliate of the ACLU did try to help the Freethinkers of America as much as it could; when the NYCLU was informed of a case that Lewis brought up in New York, the NYCLU offered lawyers and legal assistance. The case was based on trying to take the new version of the Pledge of Allegiance out of the classroom. Whereas the NYCLU failed along with Lewis and the Freethinkers, it did help. As a whole ACLU offered little help for challenging the constitutionality of the “In God We Trust” cases in this era. In the ACLU there were some disagreements on certain events, like the president speaking in Miami and whether it was a violation or not of the First Amendment. The majority of the disagreements in the ACLU were between national members, over whether they should allocate their time, not on the merits of the cases.

In the years following the 1950s there were numerous attempts to change the laws that were passed from 1954 to 1959. In 1970 the case Aronow v. United States was brought up to the Ninth Circuit court, challenging the constitutionality of “In God We Trust” as the national motto. The court did not find in favor of Aronow, and when challenged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reached a conclusion that it would not change the national motto because it would invoke the notion of secular purpose. In 1978 Madalyn Murray O’Hair defended the proposition that “In God We Trust” should not be our national motto. In the case of Madalyn Murray O’Hair et al. v. W. Michael Blumenthal, secretary of the treasury et al., the court opined, “Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of religious exercise.” A 2002 ACLU report stated,

Several courts have addressed the use of the ‘In God We Trust’ motto in non-education environments and all have said it serves a secular purpose and its use does not violate the Constitution. The phrase is so widely used that it has lost it religious significance. Specifically, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Utah, has stated that printing “In God We Trust” on money does not violate the constitution, Gaylor v. United States (1996). Similarly a district court in Kansas . . . states that posting the motto in county government offices does not violate the Constitution, Schmidt v. Cline (2000).

In 2007 the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Indiana that challenged a 2006 law. The law stated that a $15 fee was waived for those who would like “In God We Trust” on their license plate—creating a case that religion was getting a preferential treatment, Today the Freethinkers of America, American Jewish Congress, and American Ethical Union, all, do not exist. These three groups all tried to fight separation of church and state issues during the late fifties. The ACLU stayed away from the religious issues in the late fifties and survived, unlike these other organizations, even if it compromised the ideas upon which it was founded.


Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. "American Religion in 1776: a Statistical Portrait." Sociological Analysis vol. 49. Sp.1988. 39-51.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Richmond, Va: J. W. Randolph, 1853.

Adams, John. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Ed. Neal Pollack. New York: Akashic Books, 2004.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1898.

Levy, Leonard W. The Establishment Clause, Religion and the First Amendment. Chapel Hill, SC: UNC Press, 1994. 124.

Burrell, Brian. The Words We Live by: the Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges That Have Shaped America. New York: The Free P, 1997. 51-194.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: a History of the ACLU. 2nd ed. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. 219-221.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: a History of the ACLU. 2nd ed. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. 222.

Donohue, William. The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union. New Brunswick: Transaction Publisher, 2006. 310.

Burrell, Brian. The Words We Live by: the Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges That Have Shaped America. New York: The Free P, 1997. 51-194.

Joseph Lewis to Friend ACLU Series 3 Reel 70 Folder 8 September 1956.

Fulbright to Rothert: Christian Herald magazine February 19, 1954.

Camden Man Asks Treasury To Put Religious Motto on Bills Arkansas Gazette December 6, 1956.

House of Representatives Committee on Banking and Currency 84th Congress hearing on United States currency inscription. May 17, 1955.

United States Senate “Transcript of Proceedings” Committee on Banking and Currency. June 27, 1955 p. 7-9.

Senate Committee on Banking and Currency 84th Congress hearing on other matters.June 27, 1955.

Lancken to Malin ACLU Series 3 Reel 69 Folder24 Feb 20 1955.

Malin to Lancken ACLU Series 3 Reel 69 Folder 24 June 1 1955.

United States Code: Congressional and Administrative News: 84 th Congress- First Session Vol. 1.

84th Congress House of Representatives Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee No. 4 hearing To establish a National Motto of the United States.February 24, 1956.

W.S.P to Alan Reitman ACLU Series 3 Reel 70 Folder 43 May 18 1956.

Reitman to Louis ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 43 May 17, 1956.

Malin to Daniels ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 43 June 24, 1956.

Malin to Hennings ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 43 June 25, 1956.

Joseph Lewis to Friend ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 8 September 1956.

Joseph Lewis to Friend ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 8 September 1956.

Watts to Joseph Lewis ACLU Series 3Reel 70 Folder 24 September 1956.

Watts to Lewis Reel ACLU Series 3 Reel70 Folder 8 October 22 1956.

http;//www.acluutah.org/02hb79.htm In God We Trust in Our Classrooms; ACLU of Utah.


84th Congress House of Representatives Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee No. 4 hearing To establish a National Motto of the United States. February 24, 1956.

Adams, John. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Ed. Neal Pollack. New York: Akashic Books, 2004.

American Civil Liberties Union Archives, 1950-1990: Series 3: Subject Files Reel 69

American Civil Liberties Union Archives, 1950-1990: Series 3: Subject Files Reel 70

Burrell, Brian. The Words We Live by: the Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges That Have Shaped America. New York: The Free P, 1997. 51-194.

Camden Man Asks Treasury To Put Religious Motto on Bills Arkansas Gazette December 6, 1956.

Donohue, William. The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union. New Brunswick: Transaction Publisher, 2006. 310.

In God We Trust in Our Classrooms; ACLU of Utah. http;//www.acluutah.org/02hb79.htm

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Richmond, Va: J. W. Randolph, 1853.

Levy, Leonard W. The Establishment Clause, Religion and the First Amendment. Chapel Hill, SC: UNC Press, 1994. 124.

Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology. New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1898.

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. "American Religion in 1776: a Statistical Portrait." Sociological Analysis vol. 49. Sp.1988. 39-51.

Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: a History of the ACLU. 2nd ed. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. 219-221.

Leigh Ann Wheeler, Associate Professor, Binghamton University
“In God We Trust” and the ACLU, 1955-1959
Randy Kamcza, Bowling Green State University
ACLU Involvement in Anti-war Demonstrations, 1965-1971
Brandon Scribner, Bowling Green State University


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