NEW YORK – A case filed by atheists who want the national motto, “In God We Trust,” removed from U.S. currency has been dismissed by a federal district judge in New York.
The ruling was issued Sept. 9 after the judge found the presence of the national motto on currency had not created a “substantial burden” on the plaintiffs, who included 18 atheists and humanists, the New York City Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
“While Plaintiffs may be inconvenienced or offended by the appearance of the motto on currency, these burdens are a far cry from the coercion, penalty, or denial of benefits required under the ‘substantial burden’ standard,” Judge Harold Baer Jr. wrote.
In the case, Newdow, et al., v. U.S. Treasury, the plaintiffs had alleged that their repeated use of federal currency bearing the national motto forced them to endorse the idea of the existence of God each time they undertook a financial transaction. One plaintiff, a numismatist or coin collector, also said she was forced to stop collecting coins because she was repeatedly angered by the presence of the motto on U.S. coinage.
The lead plaintiff in the case was atheist Rosalyn Newdow, whose son, Michael, honorary director of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, brought a lawsuit against the federal government in 2002 alleging that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance exposed his school-aged daughter to brainwashing and scorn as an atheist, thus violating the separation of church and state. Newdow lost his case in the Supreme Court on procedural grounds in 2004.
“In God We Trust” was added to all U.S. currency in 1955, one year after President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Atheists repeatedly have challenged the use of the phrase on monuments, government buildings and currency.
Baer wrote in his legal opinion dismissing the New York case that the courts have a long history of testing establishment cases.
In Lemon v. Kurtzman, Baer wrote, the Supreme Court developed three tests to determine whether the Establishment Clause has been violated. The high court said in that case that a statute must have a secular legislative purpose; “its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion”; and “the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’”
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect, and all circuit courts that have considered this issue – namely the Ninth, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuit – have found no constitutional violation in the motto’s inclusion on currency,” Baer wrote, adding that the courts have distinguished currency because it is normally concealed and doesn’t require an individual to advertise the motto.
“Each circuit court that has considered the issue found no Establishment Clause violation in the motto’s placement on currency, finding ceremonial or secular purposes and no religious effect or endorsement,” Baer wrote.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), said in a statement from ACLJ the judge’s opinion in the case is “welcome and well-reasoned.”
“Time after time, flawed legal challenges like this one are brought by atheists,” Sekulow said in the statement. “And time after time, the courts soundly reject their attempts to change the historical and cultural landscape of America. In our amicus brief on behalf of members of Congress and nearly 90,000 Americans, we argued that the national motto poses no constitutional violations and [cases against it] must be dismissed. We’re extremely pleased that the court did just that.”
The ACLJ amicus brief stated in part, “The national motto simply echoes the principle found in the Declaration of Independence that our freedoms come from God and not the state. The national motto was adopted for the express purpose of reaffirming America’s unique understanding of this truth. … The Establishment Clause was never intended as a guarantee that a person will not be exposed to religion or religious symbols on public property, and the Supreme Court has rejected previous attempts to eradicate all symbols of this country’s religious heritage from the public’s view.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.)