Wednesday, April 26, 2000

Ohio's motto must go, court decides

State plans to appeal decision by 6th Circuit

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Former governor George Voinovich poses in 1998 with the state motto he had inlaid in the sidewalk at the Statehouse.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
        With God, all things may be possible, but not necessarily constitutional. Ohio's state motto — “With God, all things are possible” — was a casualty Tuesday in the latest court battle over the separation of church and state.

        The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state to abandon the 41-year-old motto after concluding it is a government endorsement of religion that violates the U.S. Constitution.

        Although Attorney General Betty Montgomery vowed to appeal the decision, state officials may soon be forced to remove the motto from stationery, tax forms and government buildings.

        In the majority's 2-1 decision, Judge Avern Cohn wrote that the motto crosses the line because the biblical quotation from Jesus is “uniquely Christian.”

        The judge said Ohio's motto is more specific to one religion than other references to God in public life, such as the Pledge of Allegiance or the national motto of “In God We Trust.”

        “The state of Ohio has not given equal treatment to all religions; it has not taken an even-handed approach,” Judge Cohn wrote. “The state has effectively said ... Christianity is a preferred religion to the people of Ohio.”

        The issue was raised three years ago when a suburban Cleveland Presbyterian min ister and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking to throw out the motto.

        The lawsuit was in response to then-Gov. George Voinovich's decision to have the motto engraved on a granite plaza near the Statehouse in Columbus.

        “This is an inappropriate activity by the state,” said Mark B. Cohn, the ACLU's Cleveland-based attorney.

        The state's lawyers, however, said it in no way violates a clause in the First Amendment that forbids the government from establishing a religion.

        “Ohio's motto is a generic, nondenominational reference to a monotheistic God,” said Chris Davey, spokesman for the attorney general. “It is not advocating the establishment of a particular religion.”

        He said the state will appeal the ruling, either to a full panel of the appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

        One of the appeals court judges, David A. Nelson, agreed with the state. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Nelson compared the Ohio motto to the “In God We Trust” motto that appears on U.S. currency.

        In both cases, he said, the mottos are nothing more than examples of “ceremonial deism,” which has been ruled acceptable for years by U.S. courts.

        Under those guidelines, references to God by government are allowed as long as they do not establish a religion or advocate one over another.

        But Mr. Cohn said the Ohio motto is unlike any other because it is drawn directly from the Christian Bible. The national motto, “In God We Trust,” has religious overtones but is taken from a stanza of The Star Spangled Banner.

        “The national motto is from a patriotic poem,” Mr. Cohn said. “And here we have the government adopting Jesus Christ's statements about salvation.

        “It's very different.”

        Ohio adopted the motto in 1959 after a 12-year-old Cincinnati boy, Jim Mastronardo, suggested it and launched a petition drive. At the time, Ohio was the only U.S. state without an official motto.

        The young man said at the time he didn't know the phrase came from the Bible. He said he first heard it from his mother, who repeated it often when he was a child.


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