SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge yesterday rejected a lawsuit from an atheist who said having the phrase "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins and dollar bills violated his First Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. said the minted words amounted to a secular national slogan that did not trample on Michael Newdow's non-religious views.
"There is no proper allegation that the government compelled plaintiff to affirm a repugnant belief in monotheism," Damrell said in dismissing the suit, Newdow v. Congress.
Newdow, a Sacramento doctor and lawyer, also is engaged in an ongoing effort to have the Pledge of Allegiance banned from public schools because it contains the words "under God."
Two years ago, the pledge fight reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which said in Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow that the atheist lacked standing to bring the case because he didn't have custody of the daughter on whose behalf he brought the case.
But a Sacramento federal judge sided with Newdow in September after he filed an identical lawsuit on behalf of parents with children in three Sacramento-area school districts. The case is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Informed of the "In God We Trust" decision yesterday, Newdow said he was not disappointed because it would give him an edge in an appeal.
Newdow sued Congress and several federal officials, claiming that by making money with "In God We Trust" on it the government was establishing a religion in violation of the First Amendment clause requiring separation of church and state. The phrase "excludes people who don't believe in God," he claimed.
"The placement of 'In God We Trust' on the coins and currency was clearly done for religious purposes and to have religious effects," Newdow wrote in the 162-page suit, which was filed last November.
Damrell disagreed, citing a 9th Circuit decision from 1970 that concluded the four words were a national motto that had "nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion." Newdow had argued the appeals court decision was "wrongly decided."
"'Wrongly decided' or not, this court must and does ... follow 9th Circuit precedent," Damrell said.
Congress first authorized a reference to God on a two-cent piece in 1864. In 1955, the year after lawmakers added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, Congress passed a law requiring all U.S. currency to carry the motto "In God We Trust."
Referring to that action in yesterday's decision, Damrell said that Congress could not be sued for adopting the law because it was a legitimate legislative activity.
Newdow filed the lawsuit five days after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected, without comment, a challenge to an inscription of "In God We Trust" on a North Carolina county government building.