US Coins

Federal lawsuit seeks removal of motto from currency

Does the phrase “In God We Trust” that is displayed on American money force God onto atheists in absence of a compelling government interest? California attorney Michael Newdow thinks that it does and filed a lawsuit on Jan. 11 in Akron’s United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio to challenge the use of the motto on U.S. money. 

The defendants include the United States of America, U.S. Congress, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew, U.S. Mint Deputy Director Rhett Jeppson and Leonard R. Olijar, director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. 

Newdow made headlines a decade ago when he unsuccessfully challenged the language “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in a case that made it to the Supreme Court. He stated his position generally in a 2015 interview: “There is obviously no compelling government interest in having ‘In God We Trust’ on our money. We did fine for the 75 years before the phrase was ever used at all, and continued to do fine for the subsequent 102 years before such inscriptions were made mandatory on every coin and currency bill. Similarly, the vast majority of nations manage to function without religious verbiage on their money.” 

This past summer he called for plaintiffs to help participate in the recently filed case, stating, “We actually are quite far along in finding plaintiffs. 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.”

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The 41 plaintiffs from Ohio and Michigan include unnamed children, evidencing various scenarios that would place them in contact with the motto “In God We Trust” in their daily life (stylized as “In G-d We Trust” in the filing). 

For example, “Plaintiff New Roe Child #1 is a minor child who is a resident of Ohio who has ongoing contact with U.S. money at school, at home and during commerce. The phrase ‘In G-d We Trust (which he unwillingly confronts on the money) is the direct opposite of his humanist belief system. Because that phrase is accepted and distributed by our federal government, Plaintiff Roe Child #1 is made to feel that his beliefs are abnormal and not accepted by the government or by society. He also feels uncomfortable when he repeatedly has to personally handle and use money that contains a religious statement that goes against his religious beliefs.”

Additionally, the filing includes some of the children’s parents as plaintiffs, including “Plaintiff New Poe Parent … a resident of Michigan who frequently handles United States currency. She is also an Atheist who denies G-d’s existence. Thus, when handling the nation’s money, she is unwillingly forced to confront the ‘In G-d We Trust’ phrase inscribed by Defendants on all of the nation’s coins and currency bills.”

One of the named plaintiffs, Michigan resident Stuart Chisholm, “runs a small business in suburban Detroit. He, therefore, frequently handles United States coins and currency not only when making his own purchases, but when his customers pay him for his services. In doing so, Mr. Chisholm (who is an Atheist) is not only unwillingly forced to confront the ‘In G-d We Trust’ message that is contrary to his personal religious views, but is also unwillingly forced to transmit that religiously offensive message to others. In other words, each and every time he passes a coin or currency bill to others, he is unwillingly complicit in advocating for a religious concept that he opposes.”

Other named plaintiffs include an individual who wants to run for public office, but cannot accept cash contributions without violating his religious beliefs, and another “who is forced to spread this Monotheistic message, also against her will, in a loathsome repudiation of her self-esteem.”

The scenarios play out the core of the filing’s argument: that the coins and currency that serve as legal tender in the United States and have the phrase “In God We Trust” are necessary for citizens to participate in everyday commerce. Those who may not believe in God are forced to either not participate in everyday commerce or violate their religious beliefs. 

Newdow’s lawsuit further states, “Forcing individuals to make such a ‘choice’ is impermissible under both the Free Exercise Clause and under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb through § 2000bb-4, unless Government has a compelling interest, and uses the least restrictive means to serve that interest.” The filing states that the government has no such compelling interest and that it violates the Bill of Rights which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Some have pointed to the irony of this issue making headlines at the same time that the U.S. Mint’s Mark Twain commemorative coin program offering silver dollars and gold $5 half eagles is released. Twain was not a fan of the addition of “In God We Trust” on coins in 1864 when it was incorporated as part of the design of the new 2-cent piece. In William E. Phipps’s 2003 book Mark Twain’s Religion, the author quotes Twain as stating, “It is not proper to boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate.” Twain favored — perhaps in jest — instead using the phrase “The god we trust in” as more appropriate, as Twain said that phrasing would recognize “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God,” before adding, “and if there isn’t enough room on the coin for this, why, enlarge the coin.” 

Newdow’s filing looks at the adoption of the motto through a historical perspective. It cites an 1862 Annual Report of the Director of the Mint that states, “Our national coinage in its devices and legends should indicate the Christian character of our nation, and declare our trust in God.” It further cites language in the 1864 Annual Report that states, “Why should this distinct and unequivocal recognition of the sovereignty of God, of Him who is ‘the King of kings and Lord of lords,’ be confined to our bronze coinage? … Let our nation in its coinage honor Him….” 

Upon the adoption of the motto on coins in 1864, the 1865 Annual Report of the Director of the Mint states, “[T]he gold and silver coins of the mint of the United States will have impressed upon them, by national authority, the distinct and unequivocal recognition of the sovereignty of God, and our nation’s trust in Him. We have added to our nation’s honor by honoring Him who is ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’?”

Hemant Mehta, editor of Friendly Atheist blog, wrote on Jan. 12, “Will this [lawsuit] be successful? I think he has a better shot of winning Powerball. You could think of it another way, though: The question isn’t whether Newdow will win, but why shouldn’t he win?” Mehta added, “Remember Newdow’s ultimate strategy: He wants to fight these cases in every Appeals Court in the country. All he needs is one to agree with him — that’s what happened with his Pledge of Allegiance case — and there are half a dozen left that have never ruled on the ‘In God We Trust’ issue. That includes the Sixth Circuit (which covers Ohio). Even if he loses in one Circuit, he’s going to keep trying in the others until he’s exhausted all options.”

Newdow has initiated other lawsuits challenging the motto, but under the First Amendment to the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In the current filing he is trying a different tactic via challenging the motto’s legality under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In the past, courts have looked at the motto not as an endorsement of a specific religion, but as a general reference to the religious heritage of the United States. 

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