Published May 13, 2005
RICHMOND, Va. – The inscription "In God We Trust" on the facade of a government building in North Carolina does not violate the U.S. Constitution's guidelines on the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) unanimously upheld a lower judge's dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the slogan written on the Davidson County Government Center in Lexington, N.C.
The inscription, in 18-inch block letters, was paid for with donations from individuals and churches in 2002. Lawyers Charles F. Lambeth Jr. (search) and Michael D. Lea (search), who regularly practice in the center, filed a lawsuit a few months later, claiming the display violated the First Amendment and seeking its removal.
U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen ruled in May 2004 that the display "will not produce an excessive entanglement of church and state."
The appeals court agreed, noting that "In God We Trust" has appeared on the nation's coins since 1865 and was made the national motto by Congress in 1956. The motto also is inscribed above the speaker's chair in the U.S. House of Representatives and above the main door of the U.S. Senate chamber.
"In this situation, the reasonable observer must be deemed aware of the patriotic uses, both historical and present, of the phrase `In God We Trust,"' Judge Robert King wrote. The court said the inscription would be unconstitutional if it served a religious purpose.
Lea said he was disappointed but was not sure whether he would appeal the ruling.
"The 4th Circuit got it exactly right," said James Redfern Morgan Jr., a Winston-Salem attorney who defended the county's governing board.
The U.S. Supreme Court (search) is expected to rule in the coming weeks whether Ten Commandments displays on government property violate the Constitution's ban on "establishment" of religion. Last year the high court dismissed on technical grounds a case in which an appeals court ruled that the words "under God" in Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional.