Taking god off US currency


Michael Newdow is the atheist who at one time argued before the US Supreme Court that the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that school children say in school violated the Establishment Clause and was thus unconstitutional. The court ruled against him on a technicality that he was at the time not the legal custodian of his daughter, the one in whose name the suit was brought, and thus lacked standing. His later attempts to rectify that issue by representing other children did not succeed at the Appeals Court level and he gave up on it.

He is now back in court leading a group of 41 people who are challenging the use of the words “in God We Trust” on US currency. The suit has been filed in a federal court in Akron, OH and you can see the petition here.

Most of the plaintiffs in this case are, as to be expected, nonbelievers who feel that they are being forced by their government to carry a religious message that they do not believe in. Two of them, Marni Huebner-Tiborsky and Sal Salerno, are known to me because they are both very active in the region as part of the Northern Ohio Freethought Society, that is also one of the petitioners.

On the surface, this suit would seem to have little chance of success since the courts have been reluctant to remove these references to religion. What makes this case interesting though is that the suit alleges that not only does this religious phrase on currency violate the Establishment Clause, it also contravenes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the legislation passed in 1993 that says that government cannot substantially burden a person’s religious beliefs without a compelling reason and even then must choose the least burdensome option at their disposal. Religious groups have exploited this law successfully to have their religious practices in the public sphere protected from challenge.

The Newdow lawsuit claims that forcing them to bear this religious message is a substantial burden for nonreligious people. Before one dismisses this as a trivial burden, remember that the US Supreme Court will on March 23, 2016 hear oral arguments on a set of cases in Zubik v. Burwell where, among others, a group of nuns claim that filling out a simple one-page form exempting them from the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare constitutes a substantial burden and seek relief under RFRA.

Another interesting point is that the suit refers to God everywhere as ‘G-d’ because one of the plaintiffs is actually religious and believes that printing of God’s name or the destruction of God’s printed name is a sin so this suit cannot be dismissed as being done purely to serve the needs of nonbelievers. As the lawsuit says (p. 38)

Plaintiff Adam Clayman is domiciled in Ohio. He often has needs to use U.S. currency in the course of his daily life. Unlike the other plaintiffs in this case, he is a firm believer in the existence of G-d.

To Plaintiff Clayman, participation in any activity that ultimately leads to the superfluous printing of G-d’s name on secular documents or to the destruction of G-d’s printed name is sinful. Thus, aware that – due to the acts being challenged in this case – G-d’s printed name on the nation’s money will ultimately be destroyed, Plaintiff Clayman has to choose between engaging in sin or not using the nation’s coins and currency bills. This choice substantially burdens him in the exercise of his religion.

I still do not have much hope for this suit, though. I think the courts feel that even if the presence of the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ is unconstitutional, calling for its removal would create a storm of protest and thus they will find some way of justifying its continuation, using one of several of their preferred options to avoid overturning practices that might cause an uproar. One is the notion that this sentiment has ceased to be religious, that these words have now become so ceremonial and banal that they lack any deep religious meaning that would warrant their removal. The other is the ‘history and tradition’ argument that the practice has been around so long that it is unlikely to form the foundation for establishing a national religion if it hasn’t done so already. The third is to invoke the de minimis non curat lex argument (‘the law takes no account of trifles’) so that even if possibly unconstitutional, these things are too trivial to bother with.

Comments

  1. Cuttlefish says

    I hope they collect instances (say, around the Cranston RI school prayer banner) where elected government officials have used the “if you’re an atheist, you should refuse to use money” arguments, if only (because I also don’t think this suit stands a chance) to force the courts to make the argument that these officials, in their attempts to push their religion, are trivializing their god. I want a court ruling to point to each time that happens.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    It should be enough to note that the claim is patently false – there are many people who don’t trust god.

    ” this sentiment has ceased to be religious, that these words have now become so ceremonial and banal that they lack any deep religious meaning ”
    So if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes meaningless. Goebbels would disagree.

  3. says

    I think they should make a variety of bills. Some should say
    “Cthulhu fghtan!”
    “Ave Satanas!”
    “Allahu Akbar!”
    “In God we Trust!”
    etc.

    It’d be surprising how fast the underlying christian privilege in that slogan would pop out.

    Besides, it’s a clear violation of the establishment clause because it was specifically put there as a reaction to soviet atheism.

  4. Ben Finney says

    Is “God”, written in English, really a name that Judaism considers too holy to put on secular documents? I’d have thought the holy names of their deity are holy only when written in Hebrew: “יהוה‎” or “YHVH” or “Yahweh” or “אל” or “El” would all be holy names, but not English-language “God”.

    This isn’t a matter for rational explanation, I suppose: the claim that some names are too holy to write down is founded on extreme irrationality. If the government’s lawyers challenge it, I don’t know how they can without undermining the whole foolishness of Judaism’s concept that Yahweh is fooled by using different words to reference Him.

  5. says

    President Theodore Roosevelt actually had the phrase removed from the 1908 Double Eagle gold pieces. He thought is was profane. Congress restored it. Wonder if we could find someone like Teddy to file suit.

  6. xxxxxx says

    Whether or not this particular case will work, I absolutely love and admire the tenacity of Michael Newdow! He doesn’t just spend his life shouting at the wind (like most of us here, me included), he actually attempts to change the law itself. I wish more atheists could become lawyers (Newdow’s day job, after all, is as a medical doctor) and begin pounding away at the hypocrisy rattling around in so many of our justice’s heads that can’t reconcile the intended secular nature of our laws with their own irrational faiths. More than wealth, its legal actions that actually cause things to change (that is, if your legal actions have some merit — which this one does, and if it fails, it only fails because of the failures of judges to be remain impartial, not because the issues Newdow raises are without merit).

  7. Mano Singham says

    Ben Finney @#4,

    This has puzzled me too. I once had a commenter on my blog, who had been a former student of mine and I knew to be Orthodox Jewish, who would post comments defending the existence of ‘G-d’, as he would spell it, so I guess this practice is common. Maybe it is not strictly necessary but they are hedging their bets in case their god is touchy about these things. You can never be too careful!

  8. Johnny Vector says

    Mano:

    Maybe it is not strictly necessary but they are hedging their bets in case their god is touchy about these things. You can never be too careful!

    But, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, what if God hates it when people don’t spell his name properly, and each day we’re just making him madder and madder?

  9. Ben Finney says

    Mano Singham @#7:

    Maybe it is not strictly necessary but they are hedging their bets in case their god is touchy about these things. You can never be too careful!

    What fascinates me is that it’s a non-stop treadmill. This decade’s oblique euphemistic name becomes used so much to refer specifically to that entity, that next decade it rings in the ears of people as clearly referring explicitly to that god. So they feel it’s disrespectful even though it was fine earlier; and choose a new discreet roundabout way to refer to the same thing. And around we go again.

    The use of “El” (“אל”) was used in order to avoid the explicit “Yahweh” (“יהוה‎”). Once “El” became common parlance and everyone refers to the god by that name, it is then seen not as an epithet but as a name itself. So a new name is chosen.

    The English-language “God” was originally just a term for any deity, not Yahweh specifically. But then the religiously observant Jews use that name exclusively to avoid “El”, and then later “God” becomes considered too explicit. And so “G-d” gets taken up as the new euphemism.

    How long before “G-d” is seen by observant Jews as disrespectfully naming Yahweh, and some new elision is needed? I predict it’ll never end until Judaism stops.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the notion that this sentiment has ceased to be religious, that these words have now become so ceremonial and banal that they lack any deep religious meaning …

    Doesn’t the uproar against every suggested wording change disprove that claim, each ‘n’ every time?

  11. says

    the notion that this sentiment has ceased to be religious, that these words have now become so ceremonial and banal that they lack any deep religious meaning …

    If they’re so banal, why not remove them? Shame to have ceremonial banalities on something as important as money. They could put something meaningful on there.

    Checkmate, christians.

  12. lanir says

    It feels weird to read the three justifications and think that people still imagine those make sense. Of the three, I think the first two are blatantly dishonest.

    The first assumes familiarity. The organized religions I’m familiar with practice parts of their religion frequently such that those practices and terms are familiar to their adherents. This does not make them familiar to those outside their circle, especially for the less populous varieties, which essentially makes this a lazy, deceitful way of saying “the majority get to pick the religion everyone has to contend with.” Imagine what the same people making this argument would think if the majority were islamic and the dishonesty really stands out.

    The second argument appears to assume that only one organization will be formed and it will directly tie into the government. That’s a very narrow interpretation. The government has in many ways implicitly supported Christianity for a long time. The faith has hardly suffered for it. If anything it’s cleared the way for the faith to insert itself into politics rather blatantly. The current crop of faithiness in politics is somewhat specific about which religions are “okay” and which are not. See the Kennedy and Romney runs for the presidency. Those are the results of Christianity getting preferential treatment.

    The third argument is really the only one that matters. The only reason the other two can be brought up at all with a straight face is because the assumption is that this one holds true: that it’s just a line on money and easily ignored much like how no one suggests having “e pluribus unum” on the money means latin is the preferred language of the state. The difference is that there is no grand movement trying to get everyone to speak latin and send in money obviously. But again, familiarity with this religion and ONLY familiarity seems to lead to the idea that this is a trivial matter not worthy of serious consideration. Basically because the judge is used to seeing it and feedback from other people who are used to seeing it confirms their bias, we’re stuck for it. That’s ridiculous and sounds more like it belongs in a sitcom skit than a courtroom.

  13. StevoR says

    Another interesting point is that the suit refers to God everywhere as ‘G-d’ because one of the plaintiffs is actually religious and believes that printing of God’s name or the destruction of God’s printed name is a sin ..

    That strikes me as really weird and I’ve seen that in a similar style on a very late night /early morn* bizarre religious TV show here in Oz (‘Key of David’?) where the preacher used ‘the Eternal’ instead of saying God or even Almighty and stuff.

    It seems to make so little sense at any level to me.

    @3. Marcus Ranum : “Besides, it’s a clear violation of the establishment clause because it was specifically put there as a reaction to soviet atheism.”

    Um, what? How does that follow? Reacting to the atheist* Soviet Union sure but why would that per se violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution? Thees seem like separate issues to me and that sounds like a non-sequiteur

    * When occassionally watching music show Rage late nights & kinda falling asleep in front of telly, switching over on really bad song and then watching in baffled amusement for the WTF?! lolz.

  14. StevoR says

    ** Atheist officially but really more an ideological religion of Marxism / Lenininsim / Stalinism as official cult and we now know really still largely Russian Orthodox Christian underneath.

  15. says

    I’m fairly sure people have the option of using credit/debit cards, where there is no mention of God, nobody is forcing them to carry cash. Another ludicrous lawsuit. I assume they would like all statues of Abraham Lincoln taken down, because he quotes God and the Bible in most of his speeches.

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