Writing for the Religion News Service, Kimberly Winston is reporting on the case filed by Michael Newdow, a 62 year-old lawyer and emergency room doctor who says references to God on paper currency and coins is a violation of his religious freedom.
His suit, filed in federal court, claims that having the motto “In God We Trust” on American currency has “substantially burdened” himself and other atheists who are forced to “personally bear a religious message that is the antithesis of what they consider to be religious truth.”
The suit is being made on behalf of 41 plaintiffs, including parents, children, atheist groups and individuals.
According to one of the plaintiffs in the case, a Humanist, her beliefs require her to have total confidence when it comes to her own abilities. Having to handle money that refers to a higher power makes her very uncomfortable because it compels her, against her will, to not only accept but then to redistribute a belief that she doesn’t share.
This is not the first time Newdow has tried to strip the phrase from American money. He made an unsuccessful attempt to strip the phrase from our currency about 10 years ago but argued the case based on the First Amendment protection from the governmental establishment of religion. This time around, he’s basing his case on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law designed to protect the free exercise of religion.
This was the same argument used by Hobby Lobby in its successful battle against the Affordable Care Act in 2014. In that case, the Christian owners of the hobby store chain claimed that the RFRA protected them from having to provide certain health care services to employees that violated their beliefs. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the company’s favor.
Does Newdow have as good a chance of winning his case?
Not hardly, says Garrett Epps, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, who told Winston he is “mystified” by the argument that having “In God We Trust” on American money is a burden on Newdow’s religious freedom.
“It is hard for me to see how … having a nickel in your pocket is a terrible burden on your religious practices,” he said. “Unless Michael Newdow can explain that to me, it is hard to see him getting anywhere with this.”
But that won’t stop him from trying. Newdow’s legacy of lawsuits against religious expression in the public square include a challenge of “So help me God” used in the presidential oath of office and removal of “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. He lost both cases, the first when a judge ruled that “So help me God” is more secular than religious and the latter case because he lacked standing to bring the case.
The phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on American coins in 1864, at the height of the Civil War after President Lincoln’s secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, received a letter from a Pennsylvania minister asking that some recognition of God be in a national motto.
However, the phrase didn’t become official until 1955 when Congress voted to place the phrase on all US currency. It was done in the middle of the Cold War to combat “godless communism”.
As Winston reports, it has been contested for decades by different groups, “but none as relentlessly as Newdow."
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