By Jack Jenkins
For almost a year now, the nation has been locked in almost constant debate over various state and federal versions of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), a 20-year-old law that was broadened by the Supreme Court in 2014 and has since been embraced by right-wing politicians and pundits — especially religious conservatives. But in an unusual twist, an atheist activist is galvanizing support for a legal campaign to use the federal RFRA to remove the phrase “In God we trust” from U.S. coins and paper bills.
Even more unusual: it just might work.
Michael Newdow, who unsuccessfully sued to have “Under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance in 2004, published a guest post on the The Friendly Atheist blog last Friday outlining a new initiative to challenge the decades-old policy of printing the religiously themed American national motto on U.S. currency. He explained that while courts have dismissed claims that the phrase violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution — which prohibits Congress from passing laws that establish one religion above others — his new legal argument is rooted in RFRA’s stipulation that religious activity cannot be “substantially burdened” without a “compelling government interest.” The government’s interest in emblazoning currency with “in God we trust,” Newdow argues, is suspect.
“Because Constitutional principles can be twisted and perverted, the challenges to this practice under the Establishment Clause have, so far, failed,” Newdow wrote. “Challenges under RFRA, however, are not as susceptible to misapplication. This is because every Supreme Court justice involved in the three RFRA cases heard to date has agreed that, under RFRA, religious activity may not be substantially burdened without a compelling governmental interest and laws narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”
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