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2nd Cir. Joins Everyone Else in Okaying 'In God We Trust' Currency

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Take a look at a dollar bill or a coin. Ever noticed the phrase, "In God We Trust?"

Yeah, me neither. But thanks to 31 U.S.C. §§ 5112(d)(1) and 5114(b), the slogan is mandatory on coinage and paper currency. Eleven individuals, including a coin collector, a teacher, atheists, secular humanists, and others, all argue that they are harmed by the placement of the slogan.

It might've been an interesting argument -- if it weren't the umpteenth time the argument has been brought, unsuccessfully, in federal court.

Fifth Time's Not a Charm

Though this was an issue of first impression in the Second Circuit, it certainly wasn't the first challenge to monotheistic money. In chronological order:

  • Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. 1970) Affirming the dismissal of a challenge to both the motto and its inscription on currency because "[i]t is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency 'In God We Trust' has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of a patriotic or ceremonial character".
  • O'Hair v. Murray, 588 F.2d 1144 (5th Cir. 1979) (per curiam) Upholding the constitutionality of the statutes requiring the motto to be placed on currency and the statute criminalizing the defacement of the motto.
  • Gaylor v. United States, 74 F.3d 214, 216 (10th Cir. 1996) Holding that the "statutes establishing the national motto and directing its reproduction on U.S. currency clearly have a secular purpose" and that "the motto's primary effect is not to advance religion; instead, it is a form of 'ceremonial deism,'" and, therefore, the statutes do not violate the Establishment Clause.
  • Kidd v. Obama, 387 F. App'x. 2 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (per curiam) Affirming the district court and holding that the printing of the motto on currency does not violate the First Amendment.

SCOTUS Bonus Dicta

Of course, the Second Circuit didn't rely upon a laundry list of sister circuit citations alone -- it also relied upon past dicta from the Supreme Court, as well as a brief application of the Lemon v. Kurtzman test, which is still the law of the land in the Second Circuit. The first two prongs (a secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion) are at issue here.

Fortunately, though the Supreme Court doesn't seem to have addressed the issue directly, it has mentioned the slogan in positive terms when dealing with other cases. O'Connor, in a concurrence, noted a secular purpose of "solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society," while Brennan argued that the slogan had "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content," and was therefore protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny.

A Religious Freedom Restoration Act (42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1) challenge also failed because the court held that there was no substantial burden on individuals that have to carry and use money that bears the slogan.

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