From the very beginning, a central theme has run through the thread of American history: the Puritan idea – borrowed from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount - that America is a "city upon a hill" that would be blessed if it remained obedient to God.
From the Declaration of Independence and Star Spangled Banner to D-Day and the adoption of "In God We Trust" as the national motto in 1956, America has long acknowledged God for its extraordinary blessings and liberty.
But this historical and spiritual tradition has come under intense attack in modern times.
In recent decades, the national motto, the Ten Commandments, crosses on government seals and at veteran's memorials, the National Day of Prayer, the words "so help me God" used to conclude the presidential oath of office and prayer in school have faced legal challenges across the nation.
Since 1996, the national motto has been the target of seven court challenges, including lawsuits by Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow who alleged it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
But legal experts say the tide in this cultural and legal battle turned last year when the U.S. Supreme Court quietly turned down Newdow's appeal to the high court.
Then, in November 2011, Congress approved a resolution by U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., reaffirming "In God We Trust" as the official national motto. The resolution went further, encouraging cities and counties to display the motto on public buildings nationwide.
Since then, in apparent response to lawsuits challenging references to God and religion in government settings, hundreds of cities and counties nationwide have voted to display "In God We Trust" in council chambers and public buildings.
"We've seen an outpouring of support from individuals across the nation seeking to put 'In God We Trust' back up on our public walls and buildings and displayed across the country," Forbes says. "It's our national motto. It was designed to encourage and inspire people, and therefore the national motto should be proudly displayed and put up."
Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento, California-based nonprofit legal defense organization that has offered to defend cities and counties that face legal challenges for displaying the motto, says he hasn't received any requests for assistance yet.
The existing national motto case law, Dacus says, "makes it irrefutable that posting 'In God We Trust' is constitutional" and the American Civil Liberties Union and similar organizations "know full well that a challenge would be a losing proposition."
"The growing number of local governments willing to display the national motto is telling of a shift in terms of attitudes of many local governments," Dacus says. "For a long time when anyone mentioned the possibility of the ACLU filing a lawsuit, those in local government would quickly surrender before the first shot was fired. With the knowledge of their empowerment to display the national motto and that an organization like the Pacific Justice Institute will defend them without charge, there is more boldness and less fear guiding their decisions on matters such as these."
David Hernandez, a Valley Village, California resident who led an unsuccessful fight to keep the cross on the Los Angeles County seal in middle of the last decade, says it's refreshing to see elected officials standing up to the ACLU and similar groups.
"Throughout the U.S., we've constantly been on the defense," says Hernandez, who is running for Congress in the newly-drawn 29th District in the San Fernando Valley. "Unfortunately, many elected officials chose to succumb to the threats rather than stand up for something so basic to the fabric of our country."
In what national motto proponents describe as a "surge of patriotism," nearly 300 city councils, county commissioners and county supervisors have voted – largely in the last year – to display "In God We Trust" prominently in government buildings and schools.
This includes two cities and counties in Alabama, 77 in Arkansas, 92 in California, two in Colorado, two in Florida, 10 in Georgia, two in Michigan, 53 in Missouri, 11 in Oklahoma, one in Pennsylvania and 29 in Texas, according to a recent report by the city of Anaheim, California, one of 16 cities in Orange County that has voted to display the motto.
Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., says the reason "this has taken off is that it's the type of generic endorsement of religion that courts have approved in the past."
"Whenever a city or county displays the Ten Commandments or tries to use the Lord's Prayer to open a meeting, there is a lawsuit," Boston says. "But the federal courts have carved out a loophole for general endorsements of religion, which they call ceremonial deism. And that's why we have things like 'In God We Trust' on our money and 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance.' "
Nevertheless, Boston says that doesn't mean his organization agrees with these court rulings.
"In our view, all levels of government from the town council on up to the U.S. Congress should be strictly neutral on matters of theology," Boston says.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, says it's discouraging to see so many cities and counties "so out of step with the times."
"Today, one in five Americans is non-religious and one in four young people, and these are from the most recent, major surveys by Pew and the American Religious Identification Survey," Gaylor says. "And so we have large segments of the population who are excluded when their government posts, 'In God We Trust.' "
The movement among cities and counties to display the national motto began a decade ago in Bakersfield, California.
In 2001, while listening to a Christian radio station, Bakersfield City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan heard about a group on the East Coast protesting the words "In God We Trust" on a public building. Sullivan felt determined to fight those who seemed driven to remove God's name from the nation's public life.
She rallied her fellow council members and on Feb. 20, 2002 the Bakersfield City Council became the first city in recent years to vote to display the national motto at a city hall.
"It was a big thing in Bakersfield," Sullivan says. "It was the first time in many years, probably since Congress first adopted 'In God We Trust' as the national motto on July 30, 1956, that a city voted to display it. It was in the newspaper and then cities around Bakersfield and in our county started following our lead in doing the same thing."
In 2004, Sullivan founded In God We Trust – America, Inc. With the help of volunteers, the organization sends informative packets to elected officials in cities and counties through the U.S.
Volunteers often attend city council and county commission and board of supervisor meetings and encourage officials to vote to display the national motto. For information on how to get involved, go to: http: http://ingodwetrust-america.org.
"In God We Trust –America, Inc. has found a legal way to not only keep God's name in our country, but to display God's name in every government building," Sullivan says. "Congress is even encouraging the public display of the motto in school classrooms. It's educational and it's intended to inspire and encourage people. That's why they came up with the motto to begin with. We need to be bold and know that we are legally protected."
Cary Nix, a commissioner in Smith County, Texas, says he's glad to see fellow elected officials across the country voting to display the national motto like his county did in 2011.
"We've taken God out of everything, and now look at the problems we're having as a nation," Nix says. "We've gotten away from Biblical beliefs - or beliefs, in my opinion, that are right like the Ten Commandments. I'm glad to see this movement happening. I'm glad to see somebody standing up finally."