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Newdow v. United States

United States District Court, Second Circuit

September 9, 2013

ROSALYN NEWDOW, KENNETH BRONSTEIN, BENJAMIN DREIDEL, NEIL GRAHAM, JULIE WOODWARD, JAN AND PAT DOE, DOE-CHILD-1 AND DOE-CHILD2, ALEX AND DREW ROE, ROE-CHILD-1, ROE-CHILD2 AND ROE-CHILD-3 VAL AND JADE COE, COE-CHILD-1 AND COE-CHILD-2, NEW YORK CITY ATHEISTS, and FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, JACOB J. LEW, SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY, RICHARD A. PETERSON, ACTING DIRECTOR, UNITED STATES MINT, and LARRY R. FELIX, DIRECTOR, BUREAU OF ENGRAVING AND PRINTING, Defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

HAROLD BAER, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiffs are eleven individuals who are Atheists and Secular Humanists, and two associations, New York City Atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' issuance of United States currency bearing the words "In God We Trust" violates the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, et seq. ("RFRA"). The above-captioned Defendants bring this motion to dismiss the complaint.

For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED, and the case is DISMISSED.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

Atheist and Secular Humanist individual Plaintiffs are numismatics, a teacher, parents and their minor children, and others who allege that they suffer harm because of the appearance of the words "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7-17.) Plaintiffs New York City Atheists ("NYC Atheists") and Freedom from Religion Foundation ("FFRF") are associations committed to the values of Atheism and the separation of church and state. They allege that their members suffer the same harm as the individual Plaintiffs. ( Id. ¶¶ 18, 19.) Plaintiffs challenge statutory provisions that require the inscription of "In God We Trust" on all coins and printed currency, 31 U.S.C. §§ 5112(d)(1), 5114(b), which were enacted in 1955. In 1956, Congress established "In God We Trust" (hereinafter "motto") as the national motto of the United States. 36 U.S.C. § 302. Congress reaffirmed this language in 2002, with detailed findings. See Pub. L. No. 107-293, 116 Stat. 2057 (2002). Plaintiffs allege that the inclusion of the motto on currency violates the Establishment Clause and substantially burdens their practice of Atheism and Secular Humanism, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 379-511.)

Plaintiffs ask the Court to declare that the statutes requiring that the motto appear on United States currency violate the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as well as RFRA. (Am. Compl. at 78.) In addition, Plaintiffs seek an injunction preventing defendants from issuing currency containing the motto. ( Id. )

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A complaint will be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) if there is a "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss on this ground, a plaintiff must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A facially plausible claim is one where "the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Further, "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, " dismissal is appropriate. Starr v. Sony BMG Music Entm't, 592 F.3d 314, 321 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

III. DISCUSSION[2]

A. Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause provides, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." U.S. Const. amend. I. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court set out three tests to determine whether the Establishment Clause has been violated: "First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.'" 403 U.S. 602, 612-13 (1971) (citations omitted). Although the Lemon test has faced criticism, the Second Circuit has instructed district courts to apply it until it is reconsidered en banc or explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court. Skoros v. City of New York, 437 F.3d 1, 17 n.13 (2d Cir. 2006). The parties do not dispute that only the first two tests-those relating to the purpose and effect of the statute-are applicable here. See Defs.' Supp. 25-26; Pls.' Opp. 9-12. The purpose test is expanded upon by the objective observer standard, which asks how the government's purpose would be perceived by an objective observer. Skoros, 437 F.3d at 22 (citing Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 690 (1984)).

The Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto's secular purpose and effect, and all circuit courts that have considered this issue-namely the Ninth, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuit- have found no constitutional violation in the motto's inclusion on currency. While Plaintiffs urge that this court should disregard Supreme Court dicta, the Second Circuit counsels otherwise. See United States v. Bell, 524 F.2d 202, 206 (2d Cir. 1975) (Supreme Court dicta "must be given considerable weight and [cannot] be ignored in the resolution of the close question we have to decide."); see also United States v. Colasuonno, 697 F.3d 164, 178-79 (2d Cir. 2012) (acknowledging that it is the "usual obligation to accord great deference to Supreme Court dicta" except in certain circumstances, such as when Congress has "removed or weakened the conceptual underpinnings" of a decision).

In Lynch v. Donnelly , the Supreme Court held that a city's Christmas display of a crèche passed the purpose and effect Lemon tests by comparing the crèche to the motto on the U.S. currency. 465 U.S. at 676 (in discussing permissible religious references, notes that "[o]ther examples of reference to our religious heritage are found in the statutorily prescribed national motto In God We Trust, ' which Congress and the President mandated for our currency....") (citations omitted). The concurring and the dissenting justices in Lynch shared the majority's view that the motto's place on currency was constitutionally sound. See 465 U.S. at 693 (O'Conner, J., concurring) (opining that the crèche, like the motto on coins, "served a secular purpose" because "government acknowledgments of religion serve, in the only ways reasonably possible in our culture, the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society"); id. at 716-17 (Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun & Stevens, JJ., dissenting) ("[S]uch practices as the designation of In God We Trust' as our national motto... can best be understood, in Dean Rostow's apt phrase, as a form a ceremonial deism, ' protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content... [and] are uniquely suited to serve such wholly secular purposes as solemnizing public occasions....").

The following year, when the Supreme Court held that a crèche display in a different setting was unconstitutional, the majority declined to revisit the discussions of "ceremonial deism" from Lynch, because of "an obvious distinction between crèche displays and references to God in the motto" distinguishing "a specifically Christian symbol, like a crèche" from "more general religious references, " which are constitutionally permissible. County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 603 (1989). More recent Supreme Court decisions have affirmed this analysis. See, e.g., Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 699 (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring) (discussing "the Establishment Clause's tolerance... [of] public references to God on coins"); Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 37 (2004) (O'Connor, J., ...


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