The ACLU of Utah has recently received many inquires from teachers, parents, and students concerned about the new state law requiring that "In God We Trust" be displayed in all public schools. We believe this law is a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protections. The separation of church and state is a basic principle of democracy in America. It protects members of minority religions and the non-believer as well, and it especially protects the right of parents to instruct their children on religious matters. This law intrudes on that freedom.
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 its 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 has stated that posting the motto in county government offices does not violate the Constitution, Schmidt v. Cline (2000).
It is important to note that while courts have generally upheld using the motto, no federal court has specifically addressed the issue of posting "In God We Trust" in schools and it is possible the courts will rule differently in this context. The Supreme Court has consistently repealed government sponsored religious expression in schools, including prayer in school and posting the Ten Commandments in school. The Court is sensitive to the introduction of religion in public schools because children are highly impressionable and it is the right of the parents, not the state, to teach children about religion. Children have not been subjected to the phrase’s wide use and hence it has not lost its religious significance from a child’s perspective. A child could easily interpret the phrase as the government’s endorsement of religion.
Despite these concerns, the strong language of the Tenth Circuit’s opinion in favor of the motto and the lack of any judgments to the contrary cause us to believe that at this time, it is unwise to challenge Utah’s law. However, if a local ACLU chapter is able to set a positive precedent by overturning this type of law in another state, the ACLU of Utah will reconsider a challenge to Utah’s law.