CINCINNATI — Ohio's motto, “With God, all things are possible,” is constitutional even though it quotes Jesus directly, a federal court ruled March 16.
The 9-4 decision by the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a decision made last April by a three-judge panel of the same court. That decision held that the Ohio motto, which quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:26, expresses “a uniquely Christian thought” and its use by the state constituted government endorsement of Christianity.
“For most of our history as an independent nation, the words of the constitutional prohibition against enactment of any law 'respecting an establishment of religion’ were commonly assumed to mean what they literally said,” wrote Judge David A. Nelson in the majority decision.
“The provision was not understood as prohibiting the state from merely giving voice, in general terms, to religious sentiments widely shared by those of its citizens who profess a belief in God,” the judge added.
However, such expressions of religious sentiment are vehemently opposed by organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The Washington-based group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiff, Presbyterian minister Matthew Peterson, who sued the state of Ohio with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I think we could do without a direct quotation from a specific religious tradition,” Barry Lynn, the organization's executive director, told the Register. “It would be better if it were changed.”
He added that he prefers America's original motto “E Pluribus Unum” to the second motto, “In God We Trust,” adopted by Congress in the 1950s. “I'm always wary of when politicians try to cheapen and politicize religion,” said Lynn.
But others saw the decision as an affirmation of the religious sentiments of the people of Ohio.
“Some people tend to view such religious sentiments as vacuous,” said Father John Neuhaus, “but that doesn't mean the people of Ohio have to think that.”
The editor of First Things hailed the decision as a victory for religion in the public square, an arena where it has seen many setbacks in previous years.
“It's a welcome correction of the lower court, that in its majority opinion, as [Supreme Court Justice William] Rehnquist said on another occasion, ‘bristled with hostility toward religion,’” Father Neuhaus told the Register.
Father Neuhaus added that critics of the court's decision in favor of the motto were not being forthright.
“Barry Lynn's ideal is the ‘naked public square,’” said Father Neuhaus, referring to a political process devoid of religious influences.
Father Neuhaus questioned the sincerity of Lynn's claim that his group is trying to defend religion against being “cheapened” by being involved in politics. “It's in the nature of the political process that appeals are made to the integrity of the religious process,” Father Neuhaus said. “But knowing the history of his [Lynn's] organization, that's really a disingenuous argument.”
The defense of religion in the public square rightly deserves constitutional support, agreed Jay Sekulow of the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice.
“This is an important victory for freedom and a sound defeat for those who want to strip our nation of its religious heritage,” said Sekulow, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Ohio.
“The decision comes at a time when there is a national movement underway to remove any mention of ‘God’ from the public arena,” Sekulow said in a statement to the Register. “The court decision affirms what we have believed from the beginning — the Ohio motto is constitutional and represents an important recognition that the motto reflects both the cultural and historical importance of our past and should not be banned.”
Ohio adopted the motto in 1959 and uses it on official stationery and tax forms. The suit arose when the motto was placed on a bronze plate in the sidewalk at an entrance to the Ohio Statehouse.
“I agree with the majority opinion that our motto serves a secular purpose, instilling confidence and optimism and exhorting the listener or reader not to give up and to continue to strive,” said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, in a statement. “Our state motto has overwhelming support, and I'm pleased that we have survived this challenge.”
While the plaintiff may challenge the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court is not expected to hear such an appeal.
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.