In May 2022, social media users shared images that supposedly showed the face of the first U.S. President, George Washington, facing right — not left — on the front of a new quarter coin released in 2022. Many of these social media posts stated that Washington was now facing away from the coin's inscription "In God We Trust," and that the alleged change revealed a change in modern society's religious views.
While we have no insight to offer on how this numismatic design does or does not reveal a change in the religious views of modern American society, we can say that Washington indeed previously faced left on the common quarter, and that the design for the coin released in 2022 has his profile facing right. There's no evidence to indicate that this design was chosen for any religious reasons. In fact, this isn't the first time that Washington has faced away from the words "In God We Trust" on a quarter.
The U.S. Mint released the coin with Washington's profile facing right as part of its "American Women Quarters Program," an initiative that was set to run between 2022 and 2025 and include as many as five new quarters every year. For 2022, the U.S. Mint said it was releasing quarters to honor Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, Nina Otero-Warren, and Anna May Wong. As of this writing, the quarters featuring Ride and Angelou were currently in circulation.
George Washington's profile appeared on the obverse side of each coin, no matter which woman it honored, and the design of it was new. Well, actually, it was an old design that had never been used.
The design of a right-facing Washington was created by Laura Gardin Fraser, one of the 20th century's most prolific female sculptors, and submitted to the U.S. Mint in 1932 after Congress launched a design competition to honor Washington's 200th birthday.
Fraser's design, which was based on a bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon and featured a right-facing Washington, didn't win the competition. Instead, Congress chose a design by John Flanagan, which featured the familiar sight of a left-facing Washington.
While some social media users criticized the government for turning Washington "away" from the phrase "In God We Trust," this isn't the first time that this has taken place. In 1999, for example, the U.S. Mint introduced its "50 States" series of quarters that featured a left-facing Washington and the words "In God We Trust" on the right side. Here's an image of the reverse side of a Pennsylvania quarter.
In 2021, when the U.S. Mint announced designs for its initial run of quarters in the "American Women Quarters Program", then-Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen decided to use Fraser's 1932 design of Washington for the obverse side of the honorary coins. The U.S. Mint wrote in a news release:
Contributions of American women have often been overlooked, but that is about to change. Literally. Beginning in 2022, the American Women Quarters™ Program will feature reverse designs honoring distinguished American women. One woman’s design, created 90 years ago, will take its place as the program’s common obverse: the unifying element of the program.
In 2022, 90 years after she intended for it to do so, Laura Gardin Fraser’s design will fittingly take its place on the quarter. It will be the obverse for the American Women Quarters Program, a four-year program that celebrates American women and the contributions they made to this country. The Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 (Public Law 116-330) requires a new obverse design that maintains a likeness of George Washington, but be designed so as to distinguish it from the one used during the previous quarters program.
It should be noted that this was not the first time a piece of U.S. currency featured Fraser's work. Fraser was the first woman to design a commemorative coin, the 1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar, and her work can also be seen on the 1922 Grant Memorial Half Dollar and Gold Dollar, the 1925 Fort Vancouver Centennial Half Dollar, and the 1926 Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar.
Also, the "American Woman Quarters Program" was not the first time that the U.S. Mint used Fraser's right-facing Washington design on a coin. The George Washington Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar coin, which was issued in 1999, featured it, too.
Dean Kotlowski, a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), said of Fraser's design in a U.S. Mint news release:
'She’s able to create a sense of his seriousness of purpose. The cheek muscles, you see the strength, the strength of character. The looking ahead, straight ahead, the sense of vision. All of these come together with a sense of statesmanship and a commanding presence that she is able to achieve with remarkable ease.'
In sum, it was true that quarters released in 2022 showed Washington facing right, while the common quarter had depicted his profile looking left. However, there wasn't any evidence that the design of the new quarters had anything to do with religion. Fraser's right-facing design was chosen, in part, because the series of coins honored the contributions of women to American society and Fraser was a well-known female sculptor. Furthermore, the isn't the first time that Washington has faced away from the phrase "In God We Trust."
American Women Quarters Program | U.S. Mint. https://www.usmint.gov/learn/coin-and-medal-programs/american-women-quarters. Accessed 2 June 2022.
Dr. Sally Ride Quarter Begins Shipping | U.S. Mint. https://www.usmint.gov/news/press-releases/united-states-mint-begins-shipping-american-women-quarters-program-coins-honoring-dr-sally-ride. Accessed 2 June 2022.
Shark, Bullion. “Laura Gardin Fraser’s Washington Bust to Appear on American Women Quarters.” CoinWeek, 7 Dec. 2021, https://coinweek.com/modern-coins/laura-gardin-frasers-washington-bust-to-appear-on-american-women-quarters/.
The Woman Behind the Long-Awaited Obverse Quarter Design | U.S. Mint. https://www.usmint.gov/news/inside-the-mint/woman-behind-long-awaited-obverse-quarter-design. Accessed 2 June 2022.