Federal judge looks to tradition, history in upholding Ohio’s use of God in motto

Wednesday, September 9, 1998

Government acknowledgments of God do not violate the separation of church and state, especially if they are generic, a federal judge informed Ohio's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union last week.

That was not the decision the ACLU had argued and hoped for when it sued state officials in federal court last fall. It had asked the court to bar the state from inscribing its motto – “With God All Things Are Possible” – on a main entrance to the Statehouse in Columbus.

The ACLU argued in legal documents and in a hearing before the federal judge that the motto consisted of words taken from the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew and that it would be unconstitutional for “every Ohio citizen seeking access to the seat of government” to be “forced to observe this association of the state government with the words of Jesus.”

The civil rights group, moreover, charged that the motto's inscription over the main entrance of Statehouse would send a “message of approval of religion and a preference of Christianity will be projected to the public.”

U.S. District Judge James L. Graham in ACLU of Ohio v. Capital Square Review and Advisory Board set aside the ACLU's challenge against the state's use of the motto. He ruled that the Christian words can be inscribed anywhere on Statehouse grounds. Graham, however, barred the state from including the motto's source in any inscription.

Graham concluded that the motto could not be taken as a state preference for Christianity over all other religions in part because most people don't know where the words originate from.

“While the words of the motto appear to have been taken from the Christian New Testament, specifically Matthew 19:26, they are only part of a sentence in that passage and they have been completely removed from the context in which they were used,” Graham wrote. “Removed from their Christian New Testament context, the words of the motto do not suggest a denominational preference.

“They do not state a principle unique to Christianity,” he continued. “They could be classified as generically theistic.” Graham compared the Ohio motto to the national motto, “In God We Trust,” and said neither expression is “regarded as sectarian.”

The ACLU, however, argued that the motto, as with the first four of the Ten Commandments, are words that “concern only a religious, theological precept: salvation through Jesus,” and that “not all Ohioans share this view, and putting this theological proposition on a permanent marker at the seat of government has no secular purpose.”

Despite those arguments, Graham concluded that “an objective and reasonably informed observer” would not see the motto as Christian-based.

The motto neither promotes Christianity nor endorses religion over nonreligion, Graham said. Graham looked to other rulings in concluding that higher federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have been more lenient on government acknowledgment of religion in the public square.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, Graham wrote that the high court had decided “that certain forms of official [government] acknowledgment of religion which are regarded as part of the 'fabric of our society' are permitted by the Constitution.”

In Marsh, the high court upheld as constitutional the Nebraska Legislature's tradition of opening each of its sessions with a prayer by a state-paid chaplain. Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the majority, said “opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.” Burger also pointed out that only three days before Congress adopted the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment in 1789, it authorized appointment of a paid chaplain to lead prayers, a policy that still exists.

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, in Lynch v. Donnelly, a city ordinance under which a city park was decorated with displays celebrating and depicting the birth of Christ. Burger, again writing for the majority, began the opinion by noting religious references and acknowledgments that have pervaded American government throughout its history.

“Our history is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders,” Burger wrote.

Graham also said that Ohio did not adopt its motto for religious reasons. He wrote that “the motto has a secular purpose” because it “inculcates hope, makes Ohio unique, solemnizes occasions, and acknowledges the humility that government leaders frequently feel in grappling with difficult public policy issues.”

Thomas D. Buckley, one of the ACLU attorneys who argued against the state's use of the motto, said the civil rights group was contemplating an appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The judge knows the motto emanates from the New Testament and he tries to suppress that fact,” Buckley said. “What the opinion does is actually forbid the state from telling the truth about the motto's origin.

“This opinion is a victory for the Christian right,” he continued. “It's a victory for ignorance and hypocrisy and dishonesty because the judge says the state can't tell the truth. This is the price the state has to pay for using a Christian motto.”

In 1947, the Supreme Court explained the establishment clause in its Everson v. Board of Education decision: “The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another,” Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority. “In the words of Jefferson the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'”

Citing the Everson decision, Buckley said that if Ohio's use of the motto was not “putting state and church together, I don't know what is.”

Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, a moderate Republican, praised Graham's decision and echoed the judge's appeal to history and tradition.

“I'm gratified by the judge's ruling,” Voinovich said in a statement released last week. “Historically, our state and national leaders have acknowledged the spiritual dimension of our public life. It is fitting that the restoration of the Statehouse reflects the spiritual foundation of our democratic principles.”

A state official told The Columbus Dispatch that it should take less than a month to have the words inscribed over the state's seal in the west plaza of the capitol grounds.