Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the addition of “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency. Whatever you may think of the propriety of that religious invocation on our money, courts have been clear that it does not violate the Constitution. This week, a federal judge in Ohio dismissed the latest challenge to “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency. 

Courts have consistently rejected the claim that the motto improperly promotes religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  A more recent line of attack, echoed in this Ohio claim, is the argument that the presence of the phrase on currency substantially burdens plaintiffs’ freedom to exercise their religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The government may not substantially burdens a person’s religious exercise, RFRA says, unless such a burden is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.

The presence of the phrase on currency, the Ohio judge ruled, does not substantially burden the plaintiffs’ religious exercise in part because cash is rarely required for transactions, and because even when it is, plaintiffs are not required to demonstrate their support for the message. Here is a key excerpt from the judge’s analysis:

Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that the use of the motto on currency substantially burdens their religious exercise. Credit cards and checks allow Plaintiffs to conduct the bulk of their purchases with currency not inscribed with the motto. And for cash-only transactions, such as a garage sale or a coin-operated laundromat, the use of the motto on currency does not substantially burden Plaintiffs’ free exercise. Plaintiffs argue that cash transactions force them to bear a message that they violates their religious beliefs. But as the Supreme Court stated in Wooley v. Maynard, “[t]he bearer of currency is thus not required to publicly advertise the national motto.” Furthermore, Plaintiffs’ other concerns, that they may be subject to peer pressure or ridicule, or that their children may question their beliefs, are unlike the choice between a “basic benefit and a core belief” described in the Supreme Court’s case law.

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that carrying the currency amounts to compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Speech guarantee, and, citing the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, their argument that as atheists their right to equal protection under the law is violated because “In God We Trust” on the currency denies them dignity equal to that shown toward monotheists.

In 2014, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same decison in a similar case invoking RFRA protections.