Written by Don Byrd
This week we got not one, but two federal appeals court decisions in suits challenging the government’s use of the motto “In God We Trust” on currency. Is the phrase religious or secular? Is it a burden on religious exercise to have a religious sentiment one disagrees with on our cash and coins? Do we really need to use currency anymore anyway? Both the 6th and 7th Circuits wrestled with these questions, but ultimately affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ suits. A dissenting opinion written by one of the 6th Circuit judges, however, would have allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
Courts have consistently rejected Establishment Clause challenges to the use of the motto on currency, and the 7th Circuit followed suit here, finding the motto merely gives “a nod to our nation’s religious heritage” rather than promoting an official religious endorsement.
Perhaps more interesting were the courts’ handling of claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA says that government may not burden a person’s religious exercise unless it is necessary to achieve a compelling interest. It is on the plaintiff first in these cases to demonstrate that their religious exercise is substantially burdened before scrutiny shifts to the government to establish that the burdensome action is required to further a compelling interest.
The 7th Circuit addressed the RFRA question, but shrugged aside the plaintiffs’ claims, finding that ” no reasonable person would believe that using currency has religious significance.” The 6th Circuit, however, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby, accepted the plaintiffs’ claims that sincere religious exercise is at stake in the use of currency before ultimately rejecting their claim. The majority determined that the plaintiffs had not met the substantial burden threshold because there are many other ways to participate in the economy without having to use cash, and plaintiffs had failed to allege facts to establish their need to use cash.
Here are excerpts from that section of the 6th Circuit’s opinion:
[T]he inscription of the Motto on currency would place sufficiently substantial pressure on Plaintiffs to violate their alleged religious beliefs only if using payment methods other than cash is more than a mere inconvenience, such as if Plaintiffs have no feasible alternative to using cash to engage in necessary transactions.
Though access to credit or bank accounts is not universal, not one of the Plaintiffs alleges that his or her financial situation forecloses access to credit or checks. Plaintiffs therefore have not plausibly alleged that they lack a feasible alternative to cash for engaging in commerce.
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. Other courts have not held that such issues constitute a substantial burden under RFRA. Rather, they are …mere inconveniences …insufficient to establish a substantial burden.
Avoiding cash might not be ideal…but that does not mean Plaintiffs have alleged a substantial burden for RFRA purposes.
The dissenting judge found that in fact 39 of the 43 plaintiffs did indeed allege sufficient facts to meet the substantial burden threshold under RFRA on this question of the need to use cash.
Is “In God We Trust” a secular message? The majority rejected the plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument that the law requiring the motto discriminates in favor of monotheists. Numerous courts, the opinion emphasized, have found the inscription to have a valid secular purpose. The dissent responded with this way:
We ought to recognize that this court’s assertion that the statement “In God We Trust”—a phrase invoking faith in a supreme, monotheistic deity—is secular requires some suspension of disbelief.
For more on RFRA, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s RFRA Resource Page.