The inclusion of the national motto “In God We Trust” is constitutional, ruled two different federal appeals court. The courts ruled that the motto did not violate the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment, the Free-Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, or a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
7th Circuit Decision
Kenneth Mayle, a self-described non-theistic Satanist, challenged the motto as an impermissible governmental endorsement of a “monotheistic concept of God.” However, a federal district court in Illinois dismissed his various challenges and a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed in its May 31 decision in Mayle v. United States.
“The inclusion of the motto on currency is similar to other ways in which secular symbols give a nod to the nation’s religious heritage,” wrote Judge Diane Wood for the 7th Circuit. She applied various tests used by courts to evaluate Establishment Clause claims, coming to the same conclusion – the “In God We Trust” does not violate religious liberty.
Mayle also argued that forcing him to use currency with this motto violated his right to freely exercise his beliefs. The 7th Circuit rejected this argument, noting that the inclusion of the motto on all currency was a generally applicable law that was not targeting Mayle’s specific beliefs.
Mayle also asserted a claim under RFRA, which prohibits the government from substantially burdening an individual’s religious-liberty rights. However, Wood and her colleagues did not see how the motto burdened religion: “No matter how that case is decided, however, no reasonable person would believe that using currency has religious significance. And because using money is not a religious exercise, and the motto has secular as well as religious significance, Mayle has not plausibly alleged that the motto’s placement on currency increases the burden on practicing Satanism.”
Mayle’s free-speech claim fared no better. He argued that the inclusion of the motto on the nation’s currency amounted to a form of compelled speech. “But Mayle is not in any meaningful way affirming the motto by using currency,” Wood explained.
6th Circuit Decision
A similar case arose out of Ohio, as a group of more than forty (40) plaintiffs – which included atheists, Humanists, and one Jewish litigant – filed a lawsuit alleging similar constitutional and statutory claims as Mayle. A federal district court ruled in favor of the government and the plaintiffs appealed.
A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit also rejected the claims of the plaintiffs in New Doe Child #1 v. Congress of the United States. However, one judge dissented.
The Sixth Circuit majority devoted most of its analysis to the RFRA claim, asking whether the motto amounted to a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ religions. Judge Jane Stranch, writing for the majority, reasoned that the plaintiffs adequately alleged that they were exercising their religion in opposing the religious reference in the motto.
However, she found that there was not an adequate showing of a “substantial burden” under RFRA. She pointed out that the plaintiffs failed to show “they lack a feasible alternative to cash for engaging in commerce.” She concluded that “RFRA does not require the Government to permit Plaintiffs to use their preferred means of payment.”
However, Judge Karen Nelson Moore reasoned that most the plaintiffs did allege properly a substantial burden on their religion. She wrote that “numerous transactions in our economy require the use of cash only” and this did impose an impact on plaintiff’s religious beliefs.
The decisions show that courts continue to reject constitutional and statutory challenges to the inclusion of the motto on the currency. Whether the dissenting opinion from the Sixth Circuit remains an outlier or gains traction in the jurisprudence remains to be seen.