WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear an appeal alleging that the motto “In God We Trust” printed on American currency violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The nation’s highest court did not comment on why it rejected the petition filed by professing atheist Michael Newdow on behalf of the dozens of plaintiffs he gathered for the effort.
“Petitioners are atheists. As such, they fervidly disagree with the religious idea that people should trust in God. On the contrary, their sincere religious belief is that trusting in any God is misguided,” Newdow’s appeal to the Supreme Court read.
“Defendants have conditioned receipt of the important benefit of using the nation’s sole ‘legal tender’ upon conduct proscribed by Petitioners’ atheism (i.e., upon Petitioners’ personally bearing – and proselytizing – a religious message that is directly contrary to the central idea that underlies their religious belief system),” it argued.
As previously reported, 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. But the Sixth Circuit similarly ruled that the plaintiffs are not being forced to pay for purchases with cash, nor are they threatened with punishment for not doing so, and therefore, their religion is not being violated.
“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.”
Newdow and company therefore appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the effort was again rejected on Monday.
“Kindness and charity are no less part and parcel of atheism than they are of monotheism, and belief in God is no more necessary than a Y-chromosome, white skin, or the King James Bible to distinguish good from evil,” the plaintiffs had argued in asking the court to hear the case.
“Unless this court ends the flagrant governmental preference for belief in God (and the implicit concomitant denigration of atheism), the organizations, adults and children bringing this case will spend the rest of their lives – as they have spent their lives so far – as second-class citizens.”
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.