Ohio’s official nod to Christianity is unconstitutional, federal appeals panel rules

Wednesday, April 26, 2000

Ohio’s official state motto, which is a passage from the New Testament, violates the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

“With God, all things are possible” was adopted as Ohio’s motto in 1959 after a 9-year-old and some of his classmates petitioned the General Assembly to sponsor the verse he had culled from the New Testament. On the day it was adopted, Ohio’s secretary of state acknowledged in a press release that the passage was lifted from Matthew 19:26.

In 1996, then-Gov. George Voinovich urged the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, a state agency that approves changes to Statehouse grounds, to install on Capitol grounds a state seal engraved with the motto. Voinovich, now a Republican U.S. senator, was inspired to place the motto on Capitol grounds after a visit to India where he noticed a public building that bore the phrase, “Government Work is God’s Work.”

The state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, arguing the motto violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it promotes Christianity. In 1998, a district court judge disagreed and found the motto to be compatible with the establishment clause.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday voted 2-1 to reverse the district judge, accusing him and state officials of stripping the motto of its Christian heritage so it could pass constitutional muster.

“The district court could justify the secular cast of the words of the motto and remove them from strictures of the Establishment Clause only by decontextualizing and blotting out their origins,” Judge Avern Cohn wrote for the majority in ACLU of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. “In the context in which the words of the motto are found — as the words of Jesus speaking of salvation — to a reasonable observer, they must be seen as advancing, or at a minimum, showing a particular affinity for Christianity.

“Simply put, they are an endorsement of the Christian religion by the State of Ohio,” Cohn continued. “No other interpretation in the context of their presence in the New Testament is possible. No amount of semantic legerdemain can hide the fact that the official motto of the State of Ohio repeats word-for-word, Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question about the ability to enter heaven, and thereby achieve salvation.”

The Ohio Attorney General argued before the 6th Circuit panel that the meaning of the motto’s words endorsed “the notion that Ohio has a bright future, that their citizens do, that people ought to be optimistic and hopeful about the future.” Moreover, the state’s attorneys claimed that the state’s motto is as innocuous as the “In God We Trust” saying that adorns the nation’s paper and silver currency, and therefore should be found constitutional.

Cohn and Judge Gilbert S. Merritt said both state arguments were specious and disingenuous.

Cohn first noted that the high court had never entertained a direct establishment-clause challenge to the nation’s “In God We Trust” motto. Cohn, citing other appellate court decisions dealing with constitutional challenges to that motto, noted that it “has nothing to whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion.”

“While the words of the (Ohio) motto may not overtly favor Christianity, as the words of Jesus they, at a minimum, demonstrate a particular affinity toward Christianity in the eyes and ears of a reasonable observer,” Cohn wrote.

Merritt, in a concurring opinion, said the “real reason behind the state action adopting a religious verse from the New Testament seems purely political: To please certain politically influential religious groups.”

“Whatever may be the meaning of the phrase, ‘In God We Trust’ on the coin of the realm, it does not specify a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing God which makes ‘all things possible’ by intervening in daily affairs,” Merritt wrote. “The god in whom we ‘trust’ could be the god of Jefferson’s deism or even perhaps the laws of science or the cosmology of Newton or Einstein. The god of the silver coin and the dollar bill — ‘In Whom We Trust’ — may be merely mammon or may be drawn from any of the gods in the world’s vast pantheon of divinity that accumulated from Greek times to the present.

“The God of Ohio’s biblical motto is the God of particular Christian religious groups,” Merritt continued. “The God of Ohio’s biblical motto prefers one set of groups and one theology over another, a God who excludes nonbelievers and many other Christians from being ‘saved’ and from entering ‘into the kingdom of heaven.’ “

Judge David Nelson, in an eight-paragraph dissent, said he failed to understand how “a reasonable observer in Ohio would find ‘With God All Things Are Possible’ significantly more problematic than ‘In God We Trust.’ “

Christine Link, executive director of the Ohio ACLU, described the decision as a “thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion both on the First Amendment and the religious analysis.”

Link said she expected Ohio to seek an en banc review of the case, but was confident that “if the judges on review rely on the panel’s majority then we are in good shape.”

Chris Davey, a spokesman for the Ohio attorney general’s office, said the state would appeal the panel’s decision. Davey said the state would seek a review of the decision by the full 13-member federal appeals court or appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court. He added that the state would also seek a delay of the panel’s order to drop the motto.

“This is a legal matter and we believe that the motto is constitutional,” Davey said. “We believe the motto does not violate the First Amendment and we are confident the case law is on our side.”

Ohio Republican Gov. Bob Taft issued a prepared statement criticizing the panel’s ruling and claiming he “will do everything within my power to uphold and defend the motto of our state.”