New Doe Child #1; New Doe Child #2; New Doe Parent; New Roe Child #1; New Roe Child #2; New Roe Parent; New Poe Child; New Poe Parent; New Coe Child; New Coe Parent; New Boe Child; New Boe Parent; New Hoe Child #1; New Hoe Child #2; New Hoe Parent #1; New Hoe Parent #2; Holly Huber; Mitchell Kahle; Bernard Klein; Marni Huebner-Tiborsky; Loren Miller; Martin Maier; Michael Howard; Larry Knight; Devin Kuchnya; Tracey Martin; Mark Petricca; Beverly Shapiro; Ron Thomas; Derek Rose; George Shiffer; Nancy Dollard; Dennis Rosenblum; Joseph Milon; Salvatore Salerno; Jessica McQuarter; Susan Carrier; Sarah Maxwell; Stuart Chisolm; Michael Martinez; Adam Clayman; Michigan Atheists; Northern Ohio Freethought Society, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Congress of the United States of America, Defendant, United States of America, Department of the Treasury; United States Mint; United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing; The American Legion; American Center for Law and Justice, Defendants-Appellees.
Argued: June 16, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Ohio at Akron. No. 5:16-cv-00059-Benita Y.
Pearson, District Judge.
Michael Newdow, Nice, California, for Appellants.
V. Sturgill, Jr., UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,
Washington, D.C., for Appellees.
Michael Newdow, Nice, California, Thomas M. Horwitz,
Westlake, Ohio, for Appellants.
V. Sturgill, Jr., UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,
Washington, D.C., for Appellees. Eric Rassbach, Diana M.
Verm, THE BECKET FUND FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, Washington,
D.C., Jay Alan Sekulow, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW &
JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.
Before: NORRIS, MOORE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.
B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.
Humanists, and one Jewish Plaintiff challenge the federal
statutes requiring inscription of the National Motto,
"In God We Trust, " on U.S. currency. Plaintiffs
allege that the currency statutes cause them to bear, affirm,
and proselytize an objectionable message in a way that, for
the Atheist and Humanist Plaintiffs, violates their core
religious beliefs, and, for the Jewish Plaintiff, renders him
complicit in the sins of superfluously printing God's
name and destroying God's printed name. Plaintiffs claim
that the statutes violate their rights under the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), the Free Exercise and
Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, and the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as
incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth
Amendment. The district court dismissed all claims under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons
below, we AFFIRM.
are nine anonymous children, seven of their anonymous
parents, and twenty-four named individuals who identify as
Atheist and/or Humanist (or otherwise profess disbelief in a
God or Gods); one Jewish individual; and two organizations
whose members identify as Atheist, Michigan Atheists and
Northern Ohio Freethought Society. Broadly speaking,
Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint (Complaint) alleges
that the inscription of the Motto "In God We Trust"
on U.S. currency, as required by 31 U.S.C. § 5112(d)(1)
(coins) and § 5114(b) (bills), violates their individual
rights under RFRA and various constitutional provisions.
allege that the Motto's inscription on U.S. currency
places a substantial burden on their religious exercise in
violation of RFRA in three primary ways. The Motto's
inscription on the currency allegedly causes Plaintiffs to:
(1) "personally bear a religious message that is the
antithesis of what they consider to be religious truth";
(2) affirm as true a statement they believe to be false (both
that God exists and that "we" as Americans trust in
God) when "their religious ideologies mandate that they
act with honesty"; and (3) "proselytize for a
religious claim that is completely contrary to their personal
religious opinions." Most of the allegations state that
Plaintiffs object to carrying, affirming, and proselytizing a
message whose content contradicts their religious
beliefs, but some allegations assert that Plaintiffs'
religious beliefs specifically forbid the very acts
of carrying, affirming, or proselytizing the Motto. The
single Jewish Plaintiff alleges that it is sinful for him to
participate in an activity that involves the superfluous
printing of God's name on secular documents and that
leads to the destruction of that printed name (when currency
is destroyed). Plaintiffs allege that carrying and
transacting with U.S. coins and bills is often necessary to
participate in everyday commerce. By forcing Plaintiffs to
choose between not using cash and violating their religious
beliefs, Plaintiffs allege, the Government has substantially
burdened their religious exercise without a compelling
interest as required by RFRA.
Free Exercise claim has a similar basis, while further
alleging that the challenged statutes are impermissibly
"aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious
beliefs." Plaintiffs provide sixty pages of allegations
regarding the history of the Motto and its placement on
money, which allegedly demonstrate the Government's
consistent, longstanding intent to promote Christian
monotheism by including the Motto on the currency.
Plaintiffs' Free Speech claim alleges that the Government
intentionally compels Plaintiffs to proselytize when they
pass currency to others. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that the
Government's inscription of the Motto on the national
currency denies equal dignity to Plaintiffs' religious
views, contributing to cultural stigma, alienation, and
denigration of their views in violation of the Equal
Protection component of the Fourteenth Amendment, as
incorporated by the Fifth Amendment.
January 2016, Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit against
Congress, the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury,
the Principal Deputy Director of the Mint, and the Director
of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Plaintiffs later
voluntarily dismissed Congress. Plaintiffs asked the court to
declare that 31 U.S.C. §§ 5112(d)(1) and 5114(b)
violate RFRA and the Constitution and to permanently enjoin
Defendants from producing currency inscribed with "In
God We Trust."
district court dismissed all of Plaintiffs' claims for
failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted
under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). It analyzed
the RFRA and Free Exercise claims together and concluded that
Plaintiffs had not alleged a substantial burden on their
religious exercise. Plaintiffs could avoid cash by using
credit cards and checks. The court concluded that cash-only
transactions did not compel Plaintiffs to proselytize a
message that violates their religious beliefs, analogizing to
a Supreme Court case that suggested the Motto's inclusion
on currency was not compelled speech. See Wooley v.
Maynard, 430 U.S. 705, 717 n.5 (1977). The court
dismissed Plaintiffs' Free Speech claim for the same
reason, again relying on Wooley. Finally, the court
dismissed Plaintiffs' Equal Protection claim because it
concluded that the challenged statutes do not treat different
classes of people disparately. Plaintiffs timely appealed.
review de novo a district court's dismissal of a
complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).
Currier v. First Resolution Inv. Corp., 762 F.3d
529, 533 (6th Cir. 2014). "To survive a motion to
dismiss, the plaintiff need only plead sufficient factual
matter, which we must accept as true, to 'state a claim
to relief that is plausible on its face.'"
Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S.
662, 678 (2009)). The court relies primarily on the
complaint, which we construe in the light most favorable to
the plaintiff. Laborers' Local 265 Pension Fund v.
iShares Trust, 769 F.3d 399, 403 (6th Cir. 2014).
A. Plaintiffs' RFRA Claims
provides that "Government shall not substantially burden
a person's exercise of religion even if the burden
results from a rule of general applicability, " unless
the Government "demonstrates that the application of the
burden to the person-(1) is in furtherance of a compelling
governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means
of furthering that compelling governmental interest." 42
U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a)-(b). A person whose religious
exercise has been burdened may assert a claim against the
Government under RFRA. Id. § 2000bb-1(c). If
the claim is successful, courts may craft exceptions to
statutory government programs to accommodate religious
beliefs, but the Government may resist such accommodations
with "evidence" that they would "seriously
compromise its ability to administer the program."
See Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do
Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418, 435 (2006). Similarly, although
the Government may be required to expend additional funds for
such accommodations, the cost to the Government of modifying
a program is an important factor in determining the viability
of an accommodation for purposes of the
least-restrictive-means analysis. Burwell v. Hobby
Lobby, 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2781 (2014) (citing 42 U.S.C.
§ 2000cc-3(c)); see also id. at 2787 (Kennedy,
J., concurring) (noting that certain less restrictive means
might not be viable if it would be "more difficult and
expensive to accommodate a governmental program to countless
to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege the
following elements of a RFRA claim: (1) the plaintiff seeks
to engage in (or avoid engaging in) conduct that constitutes
an exercise of religion; (2) the Government has placed a
substantial burden on that plaintiff's exercise of
religion; and (3) the Government either has no compelling
interest in imposing that burden or (4) the Government has
another less restrictive means of achieving its compelling
addressing whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a
RFRA claim, we consider the Government's argument that
some of the Plaintiffs lack standing to bring RFRA claims
because they have not established Article III injury-in-fact.
See Smith v. Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Sch. Comm'rs,
641 F.3d 197, 206 (6th Cir. 2011) (recognizing standing as a
Plaintiffs allege injury in the form of stigma, ridicule,
peer pressure, and exposure to religious dogma, which the
Government argues are insufficient for Article III standing.
The Complaint lists certain allegations specific to
individual Plaintiffs, and it is true that some
individualized allegations state merely that a Plaintiff
feels offense or fears ridicule. The Complaint, however, is
not limited to these individual allegations. Read in full,
the Complaint's allegations go beyond mere
"observation of conduct with which one disagrees."
Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for
Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 485
(1982) (denying standing to taxpayers who alleged their tax
payments were used in violation of the Establishment Clause
but did not allege any direct connection or exposure to the
misuse). The Complaint alleges not only that Plaintiffs take
offense at the Motto's inscription on currency, but also
that the Government has burdened all the Plaintiffs'
religious beliefs by pressuring them to alter personalized
conduct in which they regularly engage. Cf. Washegesic v.
Bloomingdale Pub. Sch., 33 F.3d 679, 683 (6th Cir. 1994)
(concluding that Establishment Clause plaintiff had standing
because he "has continuing direct contact with the
object at issue, " and therefore the injury was
"not remote, vicarious or generalized as in Valley
Forge"). An allegation that the Government is
compelling a particular person to violate personal religious
beliefs (as opposed to an allegation by a taxpayer that the
Government has violated a generalized constitutional mandate)
states an Article III injury-in-fact. Construing the
Complaint in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs and
accepting its allegations as true, Plaintiffs allege
injury-in-fact sufficient for Article III.
members of Congress and others argue as amici curiae that all
Plaintiffs lack Article III standing because they "have
not alleged any governmental coercion to do, or refrain from
doing, anything." This argument appears to conflate
Article III injury-in-fact with RFRA's substantial burden
element. Whether Plaintiffs have alleged an injury-in-fact
sufficient for Article III standing is distinct from the
analysis of whether they have alleged a substantial burden on
their religious exercise under RFRA. "[J]urisdiction is
not defeated by the possibility that the averments might fail
to state a cause of action on which petitioners could
actually recover." Steel Co. v. Citizens for a
Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 89 (1998) (citation and
Rather, the district court has jurisdiction if the right of
the petitioners to recover under their complaint will be
sustained if the Constitution and laws of the United States
are given one construction and will be defeated if they are
given another, unless the claim clearly appears to be
immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining
jurisdiction or where such a claim is wholly insubstantial
Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Because the existence of Plaintiffs' right to recover
depends on how RFRA is applied, the district court had
subject matter jurisdiction. Furthermore, Article III does
not appear to require injuries caused by government coercion,
even if stating a RFRA claim might. Cf. Washegesic,
33 F.3d at 681-83 (recognizing that psychological injury
caused by seeing school's portrait of Jesus Christ was
sufficient continuing injury-in-fact for an Establishment
Clause claim even after the student had graduated and only
returned to the school for social purposes). RFRA explicitly
states that it permits standing for claims to the full extent
permitted by Article III. 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c). We
accordingly reject the standing arguments of Defendants and
Exercise of Religion
state a RFRA claim, Plaintiffs' Complaint must first
allege that the conduct at issue is an exercise of
religion. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a). In
assessing whether a plaintiff has alleged a protected
exercise of religion, the court's function is to ensure
that the claim is based on a sincere religious belief.
Hobby Lobby, 134 S.Ct. at 2779. Courts are "to
determine whether the line drawn" by the plaintiff
between conduct consistent and inconsistent with her or his
religious beliefs "reflects an honest conviction."
Id. at 2779 (internal quotation marks omitted)
(quoting Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Emp't Sec.
Div., 450 U.S. 707, 716 (1981)).
is distinct from reasonableness. Hobby Lobby teaches
that once plaintiffs allege that certain conduct violates
their sincerely held religious beliefs as they understand
them, it is not within the court's purview to question
the reasonableness of those allegations. Id. at
2777- 78. Nor is it the court's role "to say that
their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial."
Id. at 2779. Accordingly, even if they must evaluate
the substantiality of the burden, courts do not ask whether
the particular exercise of religion is a substantial part of
the plaintiff's faith. See Haight v. Thompson,
763 F.3d 554, 566 (6th Cir. 2014) (courts are not "to
inquire into the centrality to a faith of certain religious
practices-dignifying some, disapproving others").
first RFRA element is not unlimited. In addition to being
sincere, plaintiffs must allege that the conduct at issue is
based on a religious belief, not merely a personal,
non-religious belief. See Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct.
853, 862 (2015) (a challenge "must be sincerely based on
a religious belief and not some other
motivation"); Gen. Conference Corp. of Seventh-Day
Adventists v. McGill, 617 F.3d 402, 410 (6th Cir. 2010)
(a RFRA claim must be based on "a religious belief
rather than a philosophy or way of life" (citation
omitted)). We rejected a RFRA claim upon finding "ample
evidence" that the claimant's belief about marijuana
was "primarily a personal one, and to suggest that he
was using the [church] as a means of protection from criminal
sanctions." United States v. Barnes, 677
Fed.Appx. 271, 277 (6th Cir. 2017). Plaintiffs' allegations
must also show an actual incompatibility between their
religious beliefs and the conduct at issue. See Robinson
v. Jackson, 615 Fed.Appx. 310, 313 (6th Cir. 2015)