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Federal appeals court rejects atheist's argument to remove 'in God we trust' from US currency

[JURIST] The US District Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] on Tuesday rejected [text, PDF] atheist Michael Newdow's argument that "In God We Trust" violates the US Constitution and federal law.

Newdow initiated the lawsuit in 2016 in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio [official website] seeking the removal of the phrase "In God We Trust" from US Currency, saying it violated the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment." Newdow represented [JURIST report] 49 plaintiffs, including organizations like Michigan Atheists and the Northern Ohio Freethought Society, as well as many unnamed plaintiffs, who opposed the use of the phrase on authoritative currency as offensive to their ideology. The lawsuit stated that "'In G-d We Trust' clearly has a (Christian) monotheistic meaning [and] contributes to a culture that denigrates Atheism and Atheists," because of the group's deeply held ideological views.

The district court dismissed the RFRA and First Amendment challenges, saying the plaintiffs did not allege a substantial burden on their religious exercise, and that "cash-only transactions did not compel Plaintiffs to proselytize a message that violates their religious beliefs," since they could use checks or credit cards instead of paper money. The court also dismissed the equal protection argument because "the challenged statutes do not treat different classes of people disparately."

The court upheld the district court's opinion and emphasized its reasoning, saying the statutes are neutral or generally applicable, thus it is not enough that they incidentally burden religious freedom. Further, the fact that the plaintiffs may have to carry currency with a government message, does not mean that observers would associate the message with the plaintiffs' views, rather than the government.

The court explained further the RFRA claim, since this argument has been less contested and ruled on in federal courts than the First Amendment or equal protection claims. The RFRA argument primarily failed because of deficiencies in the plaintiffs' initial lawsuit. Mainly, the plaintiffs did "not allege that they must engage in cash-only transactions; rather, they allege merely that they use cash frequently and prefer to do so. . . 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."

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