WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just past the main security checkpoint in the Capitol Visitor Center and through a bank of double doors is Emancipation Hall, a cavern of marble lit by skylights intended by its designers to act as the foyer of American democracy. It quite literally is, given that the primary use of the space is as an ornate waiting room for tourists before they embark on tours of the Capitol.
The view from the second-floor entrance looking down into Emancipation Hall is striking. Front and center is the towering cast mold used to make the 19-foot-6-inch Freedom statue that tops the Capitol dome. On a piece of marble directly in front of the atrium in all capital letters is written the words of the national motto: “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
Minnesota Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Kline are among a group of House Republicans attempting to keep it written there. The two joined more than 40 other Republican lawmakers, including House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, in signing an amicus brief in support of the phrase in a case currently before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
In the brief, they argue that such phrases as One Nation Under God “simply echo the sentiments found in the Declaration of Independence and recognize the undeniable truth that our freedoms come from a source higher than the state.” The Declaration contains multiple references to a divine being, most famously that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“We are not ‘One Nation Under God,’ we are a godless nation,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, noting that the Constitution makes no reference to any almighty. “Our sovereignty is not vested in God; it’s invested in we the people.”
“There’s this myth about in the land that our nation was founded on God, and it was not,” Gaylor continued. “Ceremonial deism is an excuse used to justify the misuse of our government to promote religion.”
The national motto was adopted in 1956, at the height of the Cold War and two years after the words “under God” were inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance. The moves were made partly in recognition of what was viewed as the religious foundation of the country and partially, as is noted in the Congressional Record on the pledge, to “deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism.”
The Supreme Court has never decided on a direct challenge to the constitutionality of “In God We Trust.” However, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addressed the motto in a concurring opinion dismissing a 2004 challenge to the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance (which includes the phrase “one nation under God”).
“This category of ‘ceremonial deism’ most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (‘In God We Trust’), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’),” O’Connor wrote. “These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all.”
Derek Wallbank covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dwallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.