Thursday, April 21, 2016

In God Do We Trust?

In January, 2016 a California atheist, Michael Newdow, who has taken it upon himself to continually “keep fighting, hopefully winning, and getting the government to do what it is supposed to do, which is (provide) equal protection for all religious views” has challenged the phrase “In God We Trust” on American currency.   He believes that the United States government has “substantially burdened” atheists and others to continuously carry around a religious message that goes against what they believe in.  
  Newdow along with being a Sacramento-based emergency-room doctor is also an attorney.  He based his case off of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) -a law specifically designed to protect the free exercise of religion.  In comparison to Newdow’s case, it’s noteworthy that the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case also used this line of defense and was extremely successful.   The court allowed the company an exemption from providing four contraceptives from their health care services because the contraceptives violated the ideals of their Christian faith.  
Newdow goes on to argue that the phrase is based on the Bible and that it basically persists as a statement of belief that is “the antithesis of the Plaintiffs’ religious ideals.”  On the other hand, the court has used the pushback that the phrase is more of a secular motto than a religious affirmation.  Thus, invoking the belief that tradition, although it can have religious connotations, is not an establishment of religion because it does not count as the government endorsing a particular faith.  
From a historical context, congress voted to place the phrase on all U.S. currency in 1955, during the middle of the Cold War.  They believed that this was a pushback against “godless communism.”  The new phrase replaced the old motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” which basically encompassed the notion that out of many states (or colonies) emerges a single nation.    
Personally, I think the origins of “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency are extremely important in deterring whether this phrase is unconstitutional.  The original phrase “E Pluribus Unum” validates the nation’s motto in a neutral manner.  In other words, the phrase is entirely secular which keeps neutrality between religions by avoiding the government endorsing a single religion or embracing certain religious ideals.  Although the term “God” is not specific to one religion the term does go against both those that do not believe in God and those who believe in many Gods.  Thus, “In God We Trust” does promote specific religious ideals, which the government is endorsing by choosing to erase a secular motto for a religious one.  Although this phrase has been coined as a more traditional saying that can be synonyms with “patriotism” and “nationalism” there is inherently religious content behind it.  
With the recognition of the religious connotation I think the usage of the phrase must also be strongly considered.  The phrase is on currency, which every U.S. citizens must use and carry around.  Whenever, people take out money from the bank, pay in cash, or even just pick up their wallet they see the government’s backing of specific religious principles.  Although the government may not intend for there to be an establishment of religion “reasonable observers” or those who don’t know the true intent of the phrase do not understand the motivation behind the religious words.  

Furthermore, if we look to Newdows invocation of the RFRA defense, “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” his case has a lot of merit.  He is an atheist, an individual who does not believe in religion, and is being forced to both carry and pass around a message he does not agree with, a message that goes against his standards of living.  Thus, although many do believe in a single God and many may even see the phrase as a support for patriotism, there are many in the minority that would disagree.  So, to be forced to use an object daily that burdens the ideals of one’s moral principles would most definitely seem to violate the RFRA.  To that end, although there cannot be an exemption in this case like with Hobby Lobby there can be a change to the currency itself where the nation embraces the secular phrase it had prior.           


Rebecca J said...

I think this case is difficult because while I agree that the use of the phrase "In God We Trust" can be seen as a threat to the establishment clause, changing this would also imply changing many long-standing precedents in the United States. Mentioning God on our national currency does have a religious connotation even if the phrase is intended to have a secular purpose. God is undeniably a religious figure even if it is not connected with one specific religious sect. The currency is made and distributed by the government and used by all citizens in our country. This can be seen as a governmental preference for religion over non-religion, which the establishment clause should prevent. However, this is one of many other accepted ways that references to God are made in federal contexts. Our country's Pledge of Allegiance includes a reference to God and In God We Trust has been a federal motto for many years. Removing this phrase from our national currency would imply that these other established references to God or religion throughout our federal system would also need to be changed, even though they have been defended in numerous contexts. Additionally, some may argue that the Founders of our country did have religious inclinations and would not have found this motto to violate the establishment clause. Therefore, while referencing God is inherently religious, there are many other considerations that complicate this case.

Liz S. said...

Rebecca makes some really good points, I would like to add on to her comment and say that if we were to remove the phrase "in God we trust" from our currency, many people would see that as an attack, an infringement on religion. Also, historical context is a factor that has come up in many court cases we have read. Including "in God we trust" on our currency has been a tradition for many years, and removing the phrase would also be breaking our tradition. Nevertheless, I totally agree that the phrase is extremely religious favoring mono-theism over polytheism and Atheism. Therefore I think that if the phrase were to be added on currency today, it would be found unconstitutional. However because of its longstanding tradition on American currency, removing the phrase is not going to be very easy.

Kiriko Masek said...

When examining cases regarding the establishment clause throughout the semester, we have come across the question as to whether or not the amount of time that the form of established religious material matters and whether or not tradition is a viable reason for exemption. These questions are the main issue for me in regards to this case. I believe that the saying "In God We Trust" is a form of establishment due to the fact that it is not a neutral phrase and is discriminatory towards other religions. The saying implies that we have only one god and it is this sole god that US government is endorsing by printing the saying onto our nation's currency. However, the tradition argument plays a large factor here. This saying is a part of our nation's history and this currency has been in circulation for so long. Must our nation abandon tradition because one group has voiced opposition? Constitutionally speaking I would say yes, this saying should be removed because it violates the establishment clause. However, I don't think we should abandon the traditions of our nation so easily either.

Caroline S. said...

In 1970, Aronow v. United States was the first case to challenge "the use of expressions of trust in God by the United States Government on its coinage, currency, official documents and publications. Specifically, the action challenged the constitutionality as repugnant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of two federal statutes." The Ninth Circuit Court stated that the plaintiff did not have standing and set aside the case based upon its merits. I believe that many have tried and many will try again- but that the Court will never agree to remove this statement from government issued documents and coinage. In God We Trust has been mounted in the Supreme Court for centuries and has been ruled constitutional. I think that Court precedent clearly states that this expression is constitutional, therefore I do not think that there are grounds for this case.

Maddie G said...

I have to agree with the other commenters here. While I see how references to God on our money could potentially be seen as challenges to the establishment clause by outside observers, their history has to be taken into account, and I do not think that they should be removed right now. I found Caroline's comment about the long history of challenges to God references both in the pledge of allegiance and on money to be really interesting and I agree that "in God we trust" will remain on money in the future.