Judge Throws Out Atheists’ Lawsuit That Would Have Removed ‘In God We Trust’ from U.S. Currency

Earlier this year, Michael Newdow, the atheist who took his case to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States Supreme Court nearly a decade ago, filed a complaint in a New York district court in order to remove “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency:

The plaintiffs included Newdow, his mother, the New York City Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, several families (with children), while the defendants included the U.S. Congress and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

At the time, I wrote that I didn’t think anyone would really take the complaint seriously, legal arguments notwithstanding, especially after seeing the list of “damages” incurred by the plaintiffs:

[Rosalyn Newdow] is a numismatist, whose purchases of coin sets from Defendant United States Mint date back at least forty years. Because of the “In God We Trust” verbiage, however, she has felt obligated to stop purchasing the coin sets, thus being deprived of the pleasure and the investment opportunity she would otherwise partake of.

[Kenneth Bronstein] is a numismatist, whose purchases of coins from Defendant United States Mint date back over sixty years. Because of the “In God We Trust” verbiage, however, he has opted not to purchase some coins, thus being deprived of an investment opportunity as well as the enjoyment of the hobby.

[Benjamin Dreidel] has personally been unwillingly forced to confront the “In God We Trust” verbiage whenever he gazes at the coins and currency bills he uses in general commerce in this judicial district.

[Plaintiff Neil Graham] feels the “In God We Trust” language is so alienating that he has altered his behavior to use as little cash as possible.

Yep, I’m sure people everywhere had the same reaction to that:

NOOOOO, NOT MY COIN COLLECTION!

Anyway. It’s all over now. This week, Judge Harold Baer threw the lawsuit out:

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.

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.

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. As such, the inclusion of the motto on currency does not present a violation to the Free Exercise Clause or [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]

For what it’s worth, I’m still on the side of the plaintiffs — they’re right that the phrase shouldn’t be on the currency. It’s absolutely a statement that favors religion over non-religion and the government shouldn’t be taking that position, but at least for now, there appears to be no legal recourse to change that.

Even though his lawsuits appear frivolous to outsiders (and many atheists, too), I’ve always appreciated the way Newdow, a lawyer himself, never gives a damn about that. He fights on principle even if his credibility seems to shrink every time he goes to court. We just have to make sure there’s no further government establishment of religion that will inevitably become “tradition” within a few years. That’s why we push back against seemingly-petty things like religious city seals and Nativity scenes on public property.

(via Religious Clause)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Yootha

    Isn’t there a clause about separation of Church & State in the Constitution? Isn’t that enough grounds to remove this insidious statement from our money?

    • primenumbers

      There’s the clear wording and meaning of the 1st amendment. It should be a simple case, but there’s the issue that courts have ruled there must be specific damages and standing. This is of course pure BS, but what do you expect….

      • Fnorgby

        From a completely neutral standpoint (meaning not related to the underlying issue here), it is unequivocally a good thing that the law puts limits on how the government can be sued. Like the Electoral College, “standing” only makes the news when it produces a bad result.

        But without that limitation, the government would be sued constantly over every little issue. As it stands currently, the clerks and staff of every Federal court judge spend a significant amount of time shredding briefs, complaints and paperwork from prison inmates, tax dodgers, military deserters, issue-nuts (spanning both Left and Right and everywhere in between). Strictly by the numbers, the cases that get filed that lack standing outnumber those that have standing by probably 4 or 5 to one.

        If even *those* lawsuits made it into court, the system would bog down much worse than it is. But allowing these to proceed would encourage people who don’t currently bother because they’ve learned they can’t get into court without showing some actual harm.

        • primenumbers

          The solution for frivolous lawsuits is not to demand standing or to show harm, especially for constitutional issues though. If the issue is free speech, you should only have to show that your speech was not free, not that you were actually harmed by it.

          But the constitution is not about what citizens can or cannot do, but what the government can or cannot do. The government doesn’t have to show standing or harm to sue us for breaking the rules, so why should we have to show standing or harm to sue them for breaking the rules that they are under?

          • infidel1000

            Great point. I was just thinking about this, and then I read your post. Absolutely!

    • David

      My thoughts exactly! That should be sufficient. No further argument required. It’s in the Constitution, religion/god should not be in our government. Not on currency, not on courthouse walls, etc. What a crock…

    • flyb

      It’s probably because many, if not most, of these judges in all the cases are themselves religious and do not see the issue. They think it’s just a few harmless words that have been there “forever” (or since the 1950s anyway). I still don’t get how they can call it “secular” though.

      • aidanjt

        They bare asserted because they know that without making that baseless claim their judgement would fail the secular requirement of the constitution. Note how they never quantify the secularity of branding the currency with the judeo-christian montheistic God, nor exactly which ceremony it supposedly serves. And how anyone can say “In God we trust” isn’t an endorsement of God with a straight face is beyond me, because if it isn’t, I don’t know what isn’t. You could swap God for Nike, and we’d be talking all kinds of lawyers getting all sticky around the groin area looking to be part of that sweet endorsement contract deal.

      • Fnorgby

        I’m not endorsing this viewpoint (I generally agree that the motto is unconstitutional), but there are three components to “how they can call it secular” (based on what they’ve said in the past):

        1) It doesn’t specify any particular god. It would be “sectarian” if it did. Since it does not specify which religion is being used, it’s secular.

        2) Scalia has said that even if it is assumed to be the Judeo-Christian god (“Abrahamic”, more or less) that’s still OK because an overwhelming majority of Americans follow such a faith.

        3) In a couple of cases in the 70′s, and at least one in the 80′s (cited by the judge in this ruling), the Supreme Court has “unofficially” said that the motto is repeated and used so frequently as to have lost any connection to any actual religious belief. It’s “ceremonial” because most people just think “It’s important to make references to God in public matters because it makes us feel good to do it”, not because “My religion specifically requires me to attribute all good things to god, otherwise I’m in danger of being a bad Chrisitan/Jew/Hindu/etc.” The first use is ceremonial or traditional, The second is a religious precept.

        Like I said, I don’t agree with this reasoning. But that’s how it’s been mentioned in the high court. It’s true that they’ve never said this “officially” (as a statement of law), and that the last reference to “ceremonial deism” was in (I think) early 2000′s by Justice O’Connor. It could be they’d see it differently today (but I don’t really think so.)

    • the moother

      The SCOTUS has said it’s “secular” meaning not religious or sectarian.

      The next attack will need to be to check if their finding of “secular” is correct.

      • pRinzler

        Did the court merely assert that a reference to God wasn’t religious, or did they provide some reasoning, tortured as it might have been?

        • the moother
          • pRinzler

            So it’s not the structure or meaning of the words that determine whether they are religious or not, it’s the legislative purpose (intent). I’ll have to remember that dodge the next time I need to pull a fast one.

            • the moother

              Yeah…, it’s not what the words stringed together mean… it’s what we declare them to mean…

              • pRinzler

                Wait, isn’t that the religious approach? It *is* religious after all!

                • the moother

                  That was my point….

                • pRinzler

                  Right, we’re on the same page.

              • Brandon Maxwell

                So what is it declared to mean? What was the purpose of it going on currency to begin with?

                • allein

                  To prove we’re not like those godless commies in the USSR.

                  (Actually, that’s not entirely true. The first use of it was around the Civil War on some coins, but it didn’t go on all the money until the 1950s.)

        • Fnorgby

          Not exactly. In something like three cases since the 70′s, SCOTUS has “unofficially” said so. The term is “dictum” — a statement by one of the Justices that isn’t exactly law, but shows how they were thinking. Courts aren’t strictly bound to follow dicta, but it generally gets a lot of deference in lower courts.

          SCOTUS has never squarely addressed the issue of whether the motto on money is constitutional or not.

    • Jasper

      It’s funny because the there’s been a lot of other things ruled against where this rationale would have failed.

    • Mabans

      Right but when you use that as the reason as for not making a living, then it changes things because these people are trying to recover the money they supposedly lost in investing with coins. This isn’t an atheist issue, the motive for this suit was $$$ not removing it from our money, it would have been a bi-product. There needs to be a better coordinated effort having that removed, not removing because of some sort of really unrelated reason. The phrase “In God We trust” isn’t reason enough not to collect a coin much less blame the government for doing it then asking them to pay you for the money you “missed out on”. Lets not confuse the 2 situation that are at hand here. This law suit has nothing to do with the idea.

    • Tamrin

      It might also have something to do with our currency no longer being handled by the government, but rather by the Federal Reserve, which is a private bank. The whole situation is very complex and I don’t claim to understand it all.

    • Fnorgby

      No. It’s not that simple. The Constitution does not say anything about “separation” (that language comes from a letter Jefferson wrote to a friend).

      It does say that the government can’t establish a state religion (like the Anglican church in England). It also says that the government can’t interfere with an individual’s right to their beliefs and religious practices.

      The actual language of the constitution may seem straightforward, but just about every single word and combination of words has been litigated. What does “establishment” actually mean? What does “free exercise” mean? What does “religion” mean? What does “shall make no law” mean? etc.

      What has emerged is a legal framework, kinda like a flowchart, for going through the language step-by-step, looking at the claims against the government bit-by-bit, and deciding whether or not the legal framework is being followed. You have to start at “step 1″, and go through each step in its proper order, to come up with an answer.

      It *ought* to be straightforward, and it ought to be obvious that the motto is “establishment” of at least the idea of a god, if not an actual religion. But that’s not how the Courts see it — you have to use the rules, have to know what courts have said in the past, and have to apply the same reasoning that’s been used before. Even if that reasoning was cobbled together by a court that wanted to “protect” religion. It stays this way until the Supreme Court changes the underlying framework.

      The current Court is probably *less likely* to find religious statements unconstitutional than was the court that laid this foundation in the 60′s and 70′s. If Newdow ever does get the Court to decide one of these on its merits, it’s likely (my opinion, at least) the ruling will be worse for us than the current set of rules.

  • BobaFuct

    Unfortunately the “damages” come off as laughably petty, which just reinforces the pro-religious argument of “it’s not really hurting anybody.” Of course, that shouldn’t be the basis for evaluating the constitutionality of things, but that’s the uphill battle we face, since principles don’t seem to be enough to sway the argument in non-theists’ favor.

    • AxeGrrl

      the “damages” come off as laughably petty, which just reinforces the pro-religious argument of “it’s not really hurting anybody.” Of course, that shouldn’t be the basis for evaluating the constitutionality of things…..

      Bingo.

    • Tom

      I’m not a lawyer, but doesn’t the plaintiff need standing to bring a challenge to the motto? I believe the petty reason is the only reason that the suit could be brought forth in the first place.

      • Fnorgby

        In suits against the US Government, they do need standing– which means some kind of cognizable harm. It doesn’t have to be much to gain standing, and these rather petty damages claims are probably taken with that in mind (Newdow has lost at the Supreme Court on standing grounds, so I’d expect him to have that covered.)

        The issue here is that the “Free Exercise” clause standards currently in use require that the plaintiff show they are “substantially burdened” by the government’s action. The judge determined that no such burden existed — but that’s a subjective call.

        I’d expect them to appeal on this basis. If they could prove substantial burden, then the government has the remaining burden of proof — that there is a secular purpose and that the motto is necessary to that purpose. That’s a tough row to hoe. IF the plaintiff’s could meet the burden showing, they’d essentially win the case.

        By making the decision on a motion to dismiss, the Judge has effectively decided the merits of the case without having the trial. Whether or not there *is* a burden is arguably something a jury should decide.

        (Not a lawyer, still awaiting bar results).

  • Ivan

    If that list of damages is the better they could find, well, I support you but please don’t defend us.

  • popeyoni

    Unfortunately I think these lawsuits hurt rather than help. Today’s courts are not ready to strike down references to gods in money or the pledge of allegiance because they would have too many repercussions for the Judge’s career.

    Perhaps in 10 or 15 years the courts will be more amenable to that kind of thing, but by then we will have set all these bad precedents and it will be harder to get things done.

    • flyb

      But we have to keep at it, otherwise offenses like this one and others will become “tradition” or “ceremonial” and never disappear, as you alluded to. At least Newdow is keeping it in the news, even if it’s on the back pages.

      • popeyoni

        I agree with pursuing the new ones before they become tradition. Or even some old ones that can be won. But I worry that by setting these precedents now by losing cases about money and the pledge, we are making it harder to “win” the next time and extending the life of these symbols.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      In 10 or 15 years not many of us are going to use the current currency so it will correct itself in time.

      • JJ

        More like 20-30 but yes, the problem does go away by itself after a while.

        I suppose it shall be an interesting curiosity to some future archaeologist to find out the last time god was mentioned on a currency.

    • guest23234

      Judge’s career? They have life tenure–they’re concerned with the rule of law, and the rule of law was totally against atheists in this case. You need SCOTUS to do something about it.

  • Soci

    “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.”

    No religious endorsement, huh? Tell that to the righteous Christians who are first to point out how inherently religious our nation is because of that motto on our currency.

    • Jim Jones

      Start stamping Allahu Akbar (الله أكبر) on every note and see the freaks go nuts.

    • Domush

      To be fair, these same Christians can’t, after having it explained to them hundreds of times, quite fathom how a scientific theory is different from a blind guess. Referencing them as precedent isn’t the best foundation.

  • flyb

    Reading through the 7-page opinion is quite disheartening. The leaps and bounds that this judge makes to claim that the “motto” is not religious in nature gives me a sad. Of course the opinion is steeped in precedent, so it’s almost as if his hands are tied. Someone will need to come up with a very creative “harm” to mount a solid challenge someday.

    • baal

      I think the harm is clear even if it’s not a legally winning argument. Nothing says “Christian Nation” to much in this capitalistic democracy than having one set of religion’s god’s name (GOD) on our money. Being a “Christian Nation” is the definition of having an ‘established’ religion.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      To help with your sad.

      • flyb

        Mmm. Brown spot cookie! My favorite.

  • John

    This site sucks! Pop-up spam ads ? Really? Change that !

    • Artor

      Install Adblocker or STFU. If you don’t like it, do something about it. Don’t complain to Hemant about something he has no control over.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Simple fix. Don’t visit the site.

      • TnkAgn

        Ah, the Dana Perino gambit!

    • blasphemous_kansan

      Scroll to the very bottom of this page and look to the right. See that little link that says “Contact us”? If you see a link like this on a website, and you click on it, then you are presented with an actual opportunity to CONTACT the people in charge of the web site and voice your displeasure at your inability to install free ad-blocking software.

      Do you get any magazines? Do you write to complain to the authors of magazine articles when an advertising leaflet appears between pages, or have you found a more constructive way to deal with these horrible intrusions?

    • TnkAgn

      I love this site, but you’re right about the spam. Get rid of them Hemant, if you can.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

        I’ll let Patheos know that the pop-ups are annoying. We’ll see what we can do!

        • TnkAgn

          Thanks, Hemant. A retired high school teacher, I hope that your school year is a good one. I grew up in and around the Chicago area, myself.

    • Domush

      In this day and age, you have still not discovered ad blockers? It would take less time to google ‘ad blocker’ than to type up your complaint about them.

      Get FireFox, then use the AdBlock Edge extension. No Youtube ads, no ads anywhere. I don’t even know what modern ads look like, as i haven’t seen one in over a decade.

      Seriously, make an effort to fix your situation rather than complaining for others to fix it for you.

  • Justin

    Of course. The fact that this was only added to our currency in the 1950′s for the sole purpose of combating atheism is ignored. ‘Secular or ceremonial’ indeed.

    • Bitter Lizard

      This is…not entirely accurate. It’s appeared on coins since the 1860′s. It was affirmed as the national motto in the 1950′s as a rebuke to atheism, and then started appearing on paper money.

  • Blacksheep

    The “damages” sound like they came from a Christopher Guest script.

  • AtheistsAreUs

    What we need to do is show actual damages. Not silly stuff like what was listed. Show that teh phrase “In God We Trust” has done some harm, that resulted in either financial damages or physical harm. This is difficult, but the fact that “In God We Trust” is OBVIOUSLY based on a religious belief (like THE primary foundation of ALL religious beliefs) is undisputable.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    “I’ve always appreciated the way Newdow, a lawyer himself, never gives a damn about that. He fights on principle even if his credibility seems to shrink every time he goes to court. We just have to make sure there’s no further government establishment of religion that will inevitably become “tradition” within a few years”

    Unfortunately, standing on principle manages to result in a parade of decisions that serve as precedents which are used against future attempts which may have otherwise been more successful.

    Case by failed case he’s building a wall between atheists and the wall of separation…

    • Fnorgby

      Plus, he also risks actually getting what he’s after: a Supreme Court ruling. If you could get the current Court to take it seriously enough to make a ruling, that ruling would almost certainly be “No it’s not. Now shut up about it already.”

      • infidel1000

        With the pentangle Scalia-Thomas-Alito-Roberts-Kennedy-we don’t stand a chance. If I were a religious man, I’d pray that if Obama names the next Supreme Court Justice (probably to replace Ruth Bader Ginzburg), he pulls his head out of his ass far enough to nominate someone who, unlike himself, is clear-headed on SOCAS issues.

  • Amakudari

    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.

    Okay, so I suppose Christians wouldn’t mind removing it then? Clearly it doesn’t appeal to them on religious grounds, after all.

    As for damages, if you’ve ever heard anyone say “this is one nation under God,” it’s pretty clear how government endorsement of Christianity has poisoned the national discourse. And I think we all know which god they’re saying the nation is under. That may be too nebulous to have standing or whatever, but we all know this is endorsement of a particular set of religious beliefs.

    Anyway, the Christian case against this practice would be obvious if they’d RTFM:

    “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24)

    Of all the things to stamp in God’s name, they went with that one.

  • http://gristleoflife.wordpress.com/ Analog Kid

    Violation of the establishment cause. Fuck the courts. Bring back e. pleribus unum

  • Ronald Davis

    It’s unfortunate that there are no better grounds for which to fight against the intrusion of religion upon our government. At the very least we secularists need to form much better arguments against such things. However, so long as we keep pushing they’ll have to give at some point. I won’t lose hope.

    http://secularatheist.blogspot.com/

  • Domush

    The question is, if the currency said “in no gods we trust”, would there be a means to get it removed by the religious? The answer to that question is how to get it removed.

  • cag

    If using the word “god” is ceremonial, then there should not be any objection to us using the word in a less than reverential way, after all it’s just our tradition.

  • In_Love_We_Trust

    Or you can just do this…

    http://imgur.com/a/CAYZ0

    • Chaki

      Perfect idea!

  • J. S. L.

    I think their best stance would have been to produce old money that didn’t have the statement on it (anything circa 1956 and prior)…. “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one) was a much better motto for the USA anyways….

  • Corwin1681

    Time to throw out the judge who doesn’t understand the concept of separtion of church and state (and government not spornsoring religion)

  • rg57

    The damage is absolutely not laughable.

    I don’t know the ages of these people, but some people in the US have been using coins with this Christian statement on it for decades and decades, from the day they first played with them, or spent them to buy a gumball. Every day, almost every activity, every vendor is handing you these messages that say “In God We Trust”. If you don’t, you’re not “we”. You’re “them”. You don’t have any coins. You’re nobody. This is a powerful and damaging message to send over a person’s lifetime.

    Collecting coins is seen as a patriotic activity, and something any citizen would be able to do to express their love for their country. Regardless of what you think about patriotism itself, this is absolutely a concrete way that non-Christians, and atheists especially, are told that not only are we a minority, not only are we despised, but we’re not really even citizens at all (something voiced by Bush the Elder).

    The dismissal of this case is not a legal decision, but more religious bullying. The judge is guilty of misconduct.

    When will atheists start hiring some lawyers that can win what should be very simple cases?

  • cad

    Bollocks!

  • Lime

    It’s not unlike living in North Korea, the constant reminders of the monolithic all-powerful fantasy figure whom the State demands you bow to. A figure completely immune to criticism, to be mindlessly worshipped for eternity.

  • pennyroyal

    everyday I read postings in my local newspaper with zealots spouting about god’s will and their horrible interpretation of scripture. Get gawd off my money.

  • Andrew McInally

    So the judge basically said avoid US currency if you’re offended by the court’s view that the separation of church and state does not exist. What a fucking idiot. God is not a secular or ceremonial thing; and it’s not a rock or pebble agnostic and atheists should just relate to so everyone else can do their own thing. You cannot separate God from religion and the Christian belief system.

  • DougI

    Money is the Christian’s god, they need to tell everyone that by stamping god on the currency.

  • Bill Gilson

    Since the US has separation of Church and state does it not stand to reason that because the State prints the money the state is in violation of the separation of church and state by professing trust in a religious symbol such as a God on the currency ?

  • Keulan

    Well, I guess I’ll just have to keep crossing out “In God We Trust” on my dollar bills then.

  • wolfcat
  • http://voxatheos.com/ VoxAtheos

    I’m for removing the motto, but doesn’t the numasmitist argument seem pretty weak? It’s got to be hard for a judge to take them seriously when their major ‘persecution’ is quitting a boring hobby.

    • TheLump

      I’m with you on this one. Their primary argument seemed to be that the phrase actually prevented them from currency collection, which is preposterous. I don’t think it should be there either, but couldn’t they have come up with an argument that doesn’t sound like a teenager deprived of privilege?

  • Jen Rosado

    People ought to put the time, money and effort into things that will actually do some good, things that will effect change. Am I really suppose to believe that it is some kind of hardship for you to handle a piece of paper simply because it has the word “God” written on it? For Christ’s sake then get yourself some traveler’s checks. If you were to suddenly become homeless and starving, would your disbelief prevent you from accepting food and shelter from a church…think carefully and at least answer yourselves honestly.

  • AO39

    My uncle is athiest but most of my family does believe in God &Jesus. But to our government, In God We Trust could mean any God that people may believe in. America is full of different religious beliefs, for all we know, it could be referring to the christian god or the Luciferian God or some or some other god for all we know. In any case, believe in what you want or don’t believe in anything. To each your own. But to remove something off money just because a few don’t want it there compared to the many that has grown to like it there is crazy to nit pick over words on a dollar bill. Yes , there has been a separation of church from state and government and now, Yes, in many circumstances now, it seems by doing good has become the bad thing to do and the people that do bad are recognized as doing good. Seems as though many people have no morals anymore. Even children are now killing eachother in school, killing parents and parents killing their children. This is what happens when God is removed from schools and society. Even if some don’t believe in god , or in a god, doesn’t mean that a God doesn’t exist. It just means some have no proof of gods existance so they choose not to believe and others have faith with the hopes of a higher power is out there somewhere watching over us in hopes we may go to heaven (a place of peace) after we die and our souls are set free. So, believe or Dont believe, doesn’t matter, money is money, everyone uses it for the sole purpose of buying what they want or need. Who cares what’s written on it! Nit picking over words on money that won’t be in your hand for long is stupid. As soon as people get paid from jobs, the money is in your hand for what??? , a day or two at most! , before handing it out to pay your bills or to hand it over to the cashier for food or what you need. Point is, money can come quick to our hand but it goes just as quick so its ridiculous ti nit pick over words. Probably why the judge dismissed the case more than once.


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