Why the military coin that says “in god we trust” is unconstitutional

Why the military coin that says “in god we trust” is unconstitutional February 18, 2012

This may be ‘more’ unconstitutional than it is on money.

It certainly reveals the man behind the curtain with the coins in your pocket.

The motto was first challenged in Aronow v. United States in 1970, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled: “It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” The decision was cited in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, a 2004 case on the Pledge of Allegiance. These acts of “ceremonial deism” are “protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

These coins are not meant to be used as money. From wikipedia:

challenge coin is a small coin or medallion (usually military), bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem and carried by the organization’s members. They are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale. In addition, they are also collected by service members.

full article

Notice the Buddhist Wheel? That is the symbol used by the single Buddhist military chaplain, so it makes sense in this limited public forum. But many Buddhists don’t believe in any gods whatsoever. I’d argue against referring to them as atheists, as it still is clearly a religion. The religious jargon is very thick here, nearly indecipherable.

However, the chaplaincy itself is in desperate need to embrace all religious preferences equally – including allowing non-religious groups to use their community-building resources (buildings, systems of collecting money, outreach). The Spiritual Fitness testing and training (mandatory for all) even tried to claim that chaplains are advocates for everyone regardless of beliefs. It is our hope that this will become true, but as it stands atheist groups are banned on every post – because of chaplain regulations.

The Establishment Clause has repeatedly been upheld to mean this:

Government can’t favor one religion over another. Additionally, government can’t favor religion over non-religion.

So the slogan “in god we trust” is just as problematic as it is on our money. Atheists also outnumber Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist in the military, and by a large margin. We deserve recognition and a seat at the same table as our religious counter-parts. Atheism is not a religion and nothing can ever make it one. But the government must still give atheists the same level of support as any other group, and right now we are not getting that from the chaplaincy.

I’ve been specifically denied the right to put out a pamphlet at chapels about our group. I’ve been denied the right to be represented on a mural outside a hospital on the border of Iraq/Kuwait (pretty much the same symbols on the coin were spray painted on a concrete barrier… just wanted to put an atheist symbol right there next to them.) We’re all still denied the right to meaningfully meet on post, or  have access to group-sustaining features that all others get.

Promising things have happened recently, and perhaps we’ll soon be able to make these smaller corrections. I can’t see how rote repetition could possibly cause these coins to lose their religious significance, so we have time. It appears that a constitutional challenge would be an easy win.

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion does not just apply to the mainstream faith groups. It also applies to atheists, secularists, freethinkers

A denial of constitutional rights to one threatens the constitutional rights of all.” – USAFA Chaplain (Colonel) Robert Bruno

We’ve got a lot more important work to do before going after these coins. But at least there are members of the chaplaincy that clearly get it. The Constitution is important to all Americans, even religious citizens.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Religious privilege demands that god be mentioned as much as possible. The Constitution doesn’t enter into it. Goddists know their privilege supersedes petty legalisms.

  • Have you considered presenting atheism as a religion?

  • steve

    Ah, ceremonial deism: the grandfather exemption of the first amendment. Never mind the fact that the motto has only been officially been placed on coins for the past 100 years, and therefore it’s not really a grandfather-clause type situation. To me it’s a blatant pass given to something that would otherwise be a flagrant violation of the establishment clause, with a little poorly-worded mumbo-jumbo thrown in for justification.

  • James
  • You are incredibly lucky to have the backing of the chaplains on your post. I’ve had a chaplain flat out state that he couldn’t help me because I was not a Christian and to find someone else. That was back in the ’90’s, so hopefully things are getting better. But I wouldn’t care to wager my life on that.

  • willyk

    There are law(s) making it illegal to deface US currency.

    Unless there are specific rules in any military code why not simply take a chisel and remove the religious adornments on the coin?

    Leave the parts that make one proud of their military service!

  • willyk

    EDIT to above comment.

    I left out part of my second sentence.

    “Likely the coin is not US currency and unless there are specific rules in any military code, why not simply take a chisel and remove the religious adornments on the coin?”

  • Matt P

    @stevenbrungard – I once heard this comment that should explain why. “Atheism is a religion just like abstinence is a sexual position.”

    @steve: I doubt that anyone has ever converted from one religion to another (or to or from non-religion) by reading the motto “In God we trust” on coins. But I’d be interested in hearing evidence to the contrary.

  • steve

    @Matt P: I don’t believe your challenge to me is relevant to the constitutionality of the statement on the money, or the pledge, or any other “ceremonial deism” exemption you can cite. What is relevant is that these sayings show the government takes favor over religious views over nonreligious views, in the same manner that Mitt Romney showed in his 2007 speech, and that Newt Gingrich showed in his comments last October. They all say it doesn’t matter what higher power we beleive in as long as we acknowledge a higher power. That sort of statement is counter to the intent of the First Amendment, and I think the country would be better off if such statements were left off our money and out of our pledge to the flag.

  • Aquaria

    There are law(s) making it illegal to deface US currency.

    This is the law, 18 USC 333:

    Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

    Note the clause I’ve highlighed, “with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued.” This is the clause that negates your assertion.

    There are two parts here that do so:

    1) Making the bill unfit for reissue seems to be important to the law, but marking through a random line on a currency note doesn’t do that. You can still use the bill; it remains intact, and legal tender. So that part of it makes your assertion invalid.

    2) Intent. You have to show that the person who marked the bill intended to make it unable to be reissued; however, in most cases, the person(s) who marks through it does so in the expectation that it will be seen by as many as people who might come into contact with that bill as possible–i.e., they rely on the bill being reissued, multiple times! So the intent isn’t there in 99.99999% of cases that could be filed.

    So, under both those clauses, no, it’s not illegal to mark through the sky fairy bullshit, unless you make currency unfit to use, and intended to do so all along.

    Maybe I should be a law professor…

  • Aquaria

    Here’s one of the more famous challenge coins out there, since it was mentioned in one of Michael Connelly’s books (Echo Park, I think):


    That’s the challenge coin for the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division. If you don’t have it when someone else in RHD demands to see it, drinks are on you. If they’re like most of the cops I’ve ever known, especially the detectives, those people can drink enough to put a frat house to shame.

  • Tony


    Atheists also outnumber Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist in the military, and by a large margin.

    -Justin, I agree with you about the ‘in god we trust’ motto. Definitely is unconstitutional, and needs to go. I do question the above quote on your part. Do you have a source for this? It’s difficult for me to believe, largely because so many people on this planet are believers, and I’ve met so many more theists than atheists. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I would love for that to be the case. I long for the day that non-believers, secularists, humanists, naturalists, etc can be open about their beliefs (or lack thereof) without fear of retribution of any sort. Maybe it’s the subtle influence of living in too much of the American south (Alabama and NW Florida for a combined 24 years) and being saturated with silly supernatural beliefs but it seems too good to be true.

  • fastlane

    The lie of ceremonial deism is shown every time someone challenges the xian hegemony in the US by asking that ‘under gawd’ be taken out of the pledge, or IGWT taken off the money. The lie is demonstrated, of course, by the religionists who scream and moan the loudest. If it is meaningless and merely ceremonial, then they wouldn’t really care, now would they?

    If the supporters think it’s all that important, then maybe those challenging it have a point, but of course, the courts tend to look the other way and apply their ‘reasonable observer’ test. This test seems to leave the vast hordes of religious idiots as a basis of the ruling, for some reason….

  • cowcakes

    Well a bloke I know who has done several tours in Afghanistan with the Australian Army, who worked very closely with the Dutch before they withdrew, reckons the atheist Dutch Chaplains confused the hell out of the Americans. Of course this amused the Aussie troops no end. But then the Dutch military looks as a chaplain as mainly being a counsellor. Still they could say the magical words if required the same as Chaplains can fill the role for any religion in most militaries.