The national motto, “In God We Trust,” is safe for now. A federal appeals court has rejected an atheist’s continued attempts to have the motto removed from American currency, concluding that the printed phrase is not compelled speech and agreeing with a lower court ruling that the complainants in the case have ample alternatives to cash if the motto bothers them that much.
“Plaintiffs’ complaint does not allege that anyone has ever attributed the motto to them. And the Supreme Court has strongly suggested that the motto’s inscription on currency does not compel speech,” wrote the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Though access to credit or bank accounts is not universal, not one of the plaintiffs alleges that his or her financial situation forecloses access to credit or checks. Plaintiffs therefore have not plausibly alleged that they lack a feasible alternative to cash for engaging in commerce,” it said.
As previously reported, atheist Michael Newdow, who has filed numerous suits challenging the mixture of God and government, first submitted a complaint in the Southern District of New York in March 2013, asserting that the motto violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution as it serves to proselytize unbelievers.
But in September of that year, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer, Jr., nominated by Bill Clinton, rejected Newdow’s arguments, opining that “the inclusion of the motto on U.S. currency . . . does not violate the Establishment Clause [of the Constitution].”
He consequently appealed his case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, but in May 2014, the court likewise ruled against the prominent atheist.
“The Supreme Court has recognized in a number of its cases that the motto, and its inclusion in the design of U.S. currency, is a ‘reference to our religious heritage,’” it wrote. “We therefore hold, in line with the Supreme Court’s dicta, that [the motto appearing on currency does] not violate the Establishment Clause.”
Newdow soon began seeking plaintiffs to challenge the motto from a different angle—the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) signed in the 1990s by then-President Bill Clinton. He filed a new suit featuring 43 plaintiffs, with nine of them being children, asserting that the phrase burdens their own beliefs as atheists.
“When [the child] is confronted with ‘In God We Trust’ on every coin and currency bill she handles or learns about in school, the power and prestige of the federal government is brought to bear upon her with the message that her father’s (and her own) atheism is false,” the complaint read in part.
“Additionally, she is taught to carry and promote a religious message her father is teaching her to at least consider denying, and to also make a completely false declaration as to what is likely to be her own religious view on the matter of God’s existence,” it asserted.
However, in December 2016, Judge Benita Pearson, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, ruled against the complainants, opining that “[n]o reasonable viewer would think a person handling money does so to spread its religious message.”
“A person does not own the bills and coins printed by the United States Treasury. The government does not require citizens to display money. Money does not exist for the express purpose that it be observed and read by the public,” she wrote.
Newdow and his dozens of plaintiffs, which included one Jewish man who found “superfluously printing God’s name” to be sinful, then appealed to the Sixth Circuit. On Tuesday, while finding that the complainants had established that they are protected by RFRA, the court upheld Pearson’s decision as the plaintiffs are not being forced to pay for purchases with cash, nor are they threatened with punishment for not doing so.
“Plaintiffs do not allege that they must engage in cash-only transactions; rather, they allege merely that they use cash frequently and prefer to do so. For example, one plaintiff, as an octogenarian, ‘often feels more comfortable using cash rather than credit cards or checks,’ while one child plaintiff ‘uses money almost every week to buy books, magazines, treats and gifts,’” the three-judge panel noted.
“Allegations that Plaintiffs prefer to use cash do not show that the government has effectively forced them to choose between violating their religious beliefs or suffering a serious consequence,” it said. “Plaintiffs have not plausibly alleged that the government’s inscription of the motto on U.S. currency substantially burdens their exercise of religion.”
An amicus brief in favor of the motto had been filed on behalf of 38 members of Congress, including Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Reps. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., Jody Hice, R-Ga., Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., Todd Rotika, R-Ind., Steve Pearce, R-N.M., Walter Jones, R-N.C., Bill Flores, R-Texas, and Tim Walberg, R-Mich.
As previously reported, the motto “In God We Trust” has appeared on U.S. coins since 1864 and began being printed on paper currency in 1957. The phrase is to believed to have originated with the Star Spangled Banner, written during the War of 1812, which declares, “And this be our motto: In God We Trust!”
Following a Civil War-era proposal from a number of pastors to the U.S. Treasury Department that God be acknowledged on American currency, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase obliged and ordered that a design be created. Its inscription was first upheld by Congress in 1864, and then again in 1873 when Congress passed the Coinage Act, which specifically declared that the secretary “may cause the motto ‘In God We Trust’ to be inscribed on such coins as shall admit of such motto.”
In 1956, Congress passed a resolution making “In God We Trust” the national motto, which was again upheld by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011 by a 396-9 vote.