The Second Circuit has just blown off the Rev. Michael Newdow, founder of the First Atheist Church of True Science (FACTS), who’s been arguing to federal courts across the country that putting “In God We Trust” on our moola violates the separation of church and state. Newdow v. Peterson (2014).
Our coins were godless until the Civil War, when a clergyman convinced the Secretary of the Treasury that if the Republic should be destroyed, future archaeologists digging up our remains would think we were a heathen nation. “We need the recognition of the Almighty God on our coins,” he said. “In God We Trust” has been on our money ever since.
Teddy Roosevelt had the motto omitted from the $20 piece, saying it was inappropriate to put God’s name on filthy lucre, but the public straightened him out PDQ. In 1956, Congress made it the national motto because, unlike “E pluribus unum,” it was “plain, popular accepted English.”
Scene: Courthouse conference room. Seated around the table are: Judges Sam Adams Hancock, Patrick Henry Franklin, Betsy Ross Madison and 2 summer interns.
Judge Hancock: Oh, God, I mean, oh heck, some atheist crank is claiming that putting “In God We Trust” on our dough violates the Establishment Clause.
Judge Franklin: What’s the big deal? Nobody sits around reading their money.
Judge Madison: I don’t see how you can deny that “In God We Trust” is religious expression and that putting it on billions of coins and bills implies some kind of government endorsement.
Judge Hancock: Whose side are you are on, Betsy? If we found it unconstitutional we’d have faith-based citizens throwing eggs at us. Or worse.
Judge Franklin: Yeah, and think of all those poor guys at the Mint having to file the motto off of every penny, nickel and dime.
Judge Madison: The test is whether the law has a secular purpose. (To the interns) Can you think of a secular purpose for the law requiring “In God We Trust” on all currency?
Intern #1: I don’t know, you can’t get much more religious than trusting a Supreme Deity. Some religions have deities that aren’t at all trustworthy –
Judge Hancock: We didn’t ask you about comparative religion, sonny, we need a secular purpose.
Intern #2: What if the purpose is, like, historical? Like, to commemorate what they believed back in those days? You could show George Washington saying it, like this:
Judge Madison: That’s ridiculous. Nobody’s going to respect the U.S. dollar if it looks like a comic strip.
Judge Hancock: I like the concept. (writing) “The motto and its inclusion in the design of U.S. currency is a reference to our religious heritage.”
Judge Franklin: (nodding) It’s a nostalgia thing. Like Colonial Williamsburg.
Judge Hancock: And not only that, (writing) “It serves the secular purpose of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.”
Judge Madison: That’s exactly what goes through my mind whenever I put a quarter in a parking meter.
Intern #1: Yeah, but only if you believe in the religion. If you don’t believe in it, why would it make you solemn?
Judge Hancock: You don’t understand. Once we find the law serves a secular purpose, it means “no reasonable person would view the practice as an endorsement.” As Walter Brennan said, “It’s a form of ceremonial deism protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny because it’s lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
Judge Franklin: That’s William Brennan. Not Grandpa McCoy.
Judge Hancock: Whatever.
Judge Madison: Let me get this straight. “Rote repetition” makes it not religious? Have you ever seen a rosary? or a Tibetan prayer wheel?
Judge Hancock: Okay, okay, so maybe “In God We Trust” expresses a viewpoint, but it doesn’t proclaim one. “Currency is generally carried in the purse or pocket not to be displayed to the public. The bearer of currency is thus not required to publicly advertise the national motto.”
Judge Madison: But you have to take it out of your purse or pocket if you want to pay for something.
Judge Hancock: (Losing his temper) And I suppose they don’t take your money unless you profess belief in a benevolent Supreme Deity? The motto is just a formality that makes people solemn, without any significant religious content .
Intern #1: Then why not replace it with something meaningful, like “Drive Safely” or “Say No To Drugs”? or “If you see a suspicious package or activity do not keep it to yourself”?
Intern #2: Or sell the space for advertising. What an opportunity to reach billions of people! Like this: