NEW YORK — A prominent atheist is again on a quest to remove the motto ‘In God We Trust’ from American currency after losing attempts to do so thus far, and is now seeking to use the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in his strategy.
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 last May, 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.”
Now, Newdow is seeking plaintiffs for seven new lawsuits—one in seven of the twelve federal circuits—that challenge the motto from a different angle—the federal RFRA signed in the 1990s by then-President Bill Clinton.
“[C]hallenges to this practice under the Establishment Clause have, so far, failed,” he wrote in a recent guest post on Patheos. “Challenges under RFRA, however, are not as susceptible to misapplication. This is because every Supreme Court justice involved in the three RFRA cases heard to date has agreed that, under RFRA, religious activity may not be substantially burdened without a compelling governmental interest and laws narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”
“There is obviously no compelling government interest in having ‘In God We Trust’ on our money,” Newdow continued. “Accordingly, for those who feel that being forced by the government to carry a message that violates their religious ideals is substantially burdensome, lawsuits are now being prepared…”
He said that he is especially seeking families with children to be a part of the cases, since he believes that children will have greater influence on the courts.
“What we need mostly are families with minor children since the Supreme Court has indicated that it is more likely to uphold constitutional (and, presumably, statutory) principles when children are involved,” Newdow wrote. “Please be advised that the identities of any families with children will be kept ‘under seal’ in order to protect the children…”
“If you wish to participate—especially if you have minor children who you think will look back with pride as adults, knowing their parents gave them the opportunity to personally take part in strengthening civil rights in our country—please write to [me],” he reiterated.
Newdow did not outline whether he is seeking only atheists, or whether he believes atheism is a religion—one that is being burdened by the presence of the motto.
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.