Atheist Michael Newdow Takes New Legal Swipe at “In God We Trust”

Invoking Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he seeks court order to wipe phrase from all U.S. currency

Steven Spielberg’s new movie Bridge of Spies is based on a 1950s-era spy case involving a hollow nickel. The five-cent piece, which contained an encrypted message, could be opened by sticking a pin through a tiny hole drilled in the R in the phrase “In God We Trust” and pushing away the back of the coin.

Michael Newdow wants to get ride of that R, and the 11 other letters that come with it, and not just on the nickel but on every other species of U.S. currency.

Newdow is the persistent atheist who has brought several court cases before — hoping for a ruling that would remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, for example.

Religion News Service reports that the California resident filed a federal lawsuit in an Ohio court earlier this month, seeking to strip reference to God from paper money and coins. Newdow claims the motto is a violation of his religious freedom, RNS said:

In placing the motto “In God We Trust” on American currency, the U.S. government has “substantially burdened” atheists and others “to personally bear a religious message that is the antithesis of what they consider to be religious truth,” the lawsuit claims on behalf of 41 plaintiffs, including parents, children and atheist groups and individuals.

Newdow, 62, who is both an emergency room doctor and an attorney, has unsuccessfully sought to have the phrase removed before. But this time he is basing his case on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, a 1993 law designed to protect the free exercise of religion.

That, RNS points out, is the same argument employed by the Hobby Lobby craft store chain in its successful battle against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act in 2014.

Garrett Epps, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, has his doubts about the case.

“It is hard for me to see how … having a nickel in your pocket is a terrible burden on your religious practices,” Epps said.

But no matter what you think of him, Newdow is tenacious. He writes in his legal brief that “In God We Trust” is a statement of belief that is “the antithesis of the Plaintiffs’ religious ideals.”

When Newdow first challenged “In God We Trust” about 10 years ago, a federal judge said the phrase is more a secular motto than a religious affirmation.

Newdow has also unsuccessfully challenged the use of “so help me God” in the presidential oath of office, which a federal judge rejected on similar grounds.

“In God We Trust” first appeared on some American coins in 1864. But the phrase was ordered placed on all U.S. currency in 1955, in the middle of the Cold War against “godless communism,” the same time as the Hollow Nickel Case. It’s also when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.