Newdow, FFRF challenge ‘In God We Trust’

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 other plaintiffs are suing the U.S. Treasury for stamping “In God We Trust” on currency in defiance of the godless and entirely secular U.S. Constitution.

FFRF Honorary Director Mike Newdow is acting as legal counsel in the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 1 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Plaintiffs include Rosalyn Newdow, Mike’s mother and a longtime FFRF member and numismatist who has stopped buying coins to collect because the godly phrase on them offends her.

The legal complaint, a tour de force of historical research, unequivocally shows that there was a purely religious purpose and intent behind placing “God” on U.S. coinage. 

“In God We Trust” first appeared on a coin in 1864 after a crusade by Rev. M.R. Watkinson. He wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, noting such recognition was important to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.”

The complaint alleges that the religious motto, a Johnny-come-lately adopted only in 1956, is proselytizing, discriminatory and an establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Congress voted to require the motto on all currency in 1955, and it first appeared on bills in 1957.

Many Americans mistakenly assume our founders chose “In God We Trust” as a motto, but for most of U.S. history, our money was as free of religion as our Constitution. The original secular motto “E Pluribus Unum” (from many [come] one) was chosen by a distinguished committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin.

Newdow cites statements by members of Congress who expressed hope that the proselytizing message on U.S. currency would spread worldwide. 

Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Herman P. Eberharter said, “[T]he American dollar travels all over the world, into every country of the world, and frequently gets behind the Iron Curtain, and if it carries this message in that way I think it would be very good. I think that is one of the most compelling reasons why we should put it on our currency.”

Eberharter added, “[T]he principles laid down by God and the teachings of our way of life should be kept alive in the hearts and minds of our friends enslaved behind the Iron Curtain.”

The plaintiffs, Newdow alleges, are forced to proselytize, by an Act of Congress, for a deity in which they don’t believe whenever they handle money.

 “Our government is prohibited from endorsing one religion over another but also prohibited from endorsing religion over nonreligion. The placement of a theistic ideal on our nation’s currency violates this stricture and is therefore unconstitutional,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

“As Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF’s principal founder, has always put it, ‘In God We Trust’ isn’t even accurate. In order to be accurate, it would have to say ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?” Barker added.

The plaintiffs point out that the motto is discriminatory, necessarily excluding nonbelievers and others who don’t believe in one god. The phrase falsely links citizenship to piety. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that sends the “message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”

As Newdow points out in the complaint, a similar provision discriminating against Jews, Catholics, women, blacks, Latinos, Asians or any other minority group would never be tolerated.

FFRF previously challenged the motto in a lawsuit in 1994 taken by attorney Robert R. Tiernan in Colorado. The 10th Circuit federal judge dismissed FFRF’s lawsuit on the grounds that it was not a religious phrase. FFRF had commissioned a poll in 1994 of 900 individuals which found that a majority found the words “In God We Trust” to be religious, to endorse a belief in God and to endorse religion over atheism.

The poll is entered into the new lawsuit’s exhibits. FFRF’s case caught the eye of Michael Newdow, a California emergency room doctor who “moonlights” as an Establishment Clause litigator, and in part inspired his landmark challenge of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Newdow won a major victory before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2002, which ruled that public schools should stop using the religious pledge. It was vacated on the basis of his standing in 2004.

“We greatly admire Mike’s never-say-die perseverance, his dedication to our country’s secular roots and his pro bono representation of FFRF and our membership,” added Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

“You’re not truly educated as a secularist until you’ve read Mike’s very thorough summary of the secular history of the United States, and the history of religion on coins and currency,” she adds.


Freedom From Religion Foundation