God of Our Mottoes

Deborah Baxtrom November/December 2000 Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the famous atheist, tried unsuccessfully before her death to remove "In God We Trust" from currency and to stop jurors from saying "so help me God." Several organizations and Internet Web sites remain dedicated to the banishment of the phrase, but the High Court has not accepted any cases that offer a direct establishment clause challenge to the nation's "In God We Trust" motto--so far.

States and cities, however, have not been so lucky when their symbols and mottoes have included Christian imagery or verbiage. In 1999 city officials in Republic, Missouri, agreed to remove the Christian fish symbol from their city seal after being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). And a federal court ruling in the mid nineties forced the removal of a sign that stated "The World Needs God" that had been located over an Illinois courthouse.

In the town of Lorain, Ohio, reindeer are added to the city's holiday Nativity scene each year in an effort to avoid controversy, while the city of Stow, Ohio, was required to remove the cross from its official seal after being sued by the ACLU. The former mayor of Stow, Don Coughlin, who battled the ACLU for nearly four years in the nineties over the issue, pointed to hundreds of other cities across the country whose seals included a cross. Eventually, however, the city gave up and replaced Stow's cross with a book that looks like the Bible, along with the still legally defensible slogan "In God We Trust."

While the ACLU has been instrumental in protecting the interests of many religious groups, some feel that the organization goes too far in its zeal over the separation of church and state where the issue of relatively innocuous mottoes and symbols are concerned. "It just amazes me that this group [the ACLU], with good lawyers, cannot find a better use for their time and talents," Coughlin complained.

Be that as it may, the controversy over such matters appears to be heating up. And in the biggest and most highly publicized case dealing with this issue to date, the state of Ohio was sued recently over its motto, "With God All Things Are Possible." The case was brought by the Rev. Matthew Peterson, a Presbyterian minister from suburban Cleveland, who claimed the motto was a vain invocation of the name of God. The ACLU joined Rev. Peterson in his lawsuit, though for somewhat different reasons. The ACLU argued that the motto violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it promotes Christianity.

Ohio's motto has been in effect since 1959, when a 9-year-old boy from Cincinnati, along with some of his classmates, petitioned the General Assembly to sponsor the verse, which the boy had taken from the New Testament, specifically a portion of Matthew 19:26, which states: "Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'" (MV). On the day the motto was adopted, Ohio's secretary of state acknowledged in a press release that the passage had been taken directly from Jesus' words in Matthew (the verse also appears in Mark 10:27).

Little attention was paid to Ohio's motto until 1996, when then governor George Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, spotted, during a trade mission to India, a placard posted on a public building that read "Government work is God's work." When Voinovich returned home to Ohio, he decided to have the state's motto sunk into a sidewalk near the capitol. Voinovich urged the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, a state agency that approves changes to statehouse grounds, to install a state seal engraved with the state's motto on capitol grounds.

Rev. Matthew Peterson and the ACLU were not too fond of Voinovich's idea, and in July of 1997 they sued the state of Ohio. Named as defendants in the case of ACLU of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board were governor George Voinovich; secretary of state Bob Taft, the commissioner of the Ohio Department of Taxation; and the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, which oversees the statehouse grounds.

Events seemed to be working in Ohio's favor at first when, in September 1998, U.S. district judge James Graham delivered a complicated ruling. Graham's decision indicated that Ohio's motto favors one religion over another only in the context of its source, that is, the New Testament. Graham wrote that the plaque could be installed at the statehouse "as long as you don't mention that the quote comes from the Bible." He ruled that the words, "With God All Things Are Possible," are permissible to display on state property: "They do not state a principle unique to Christianity. They could be classified as generically theistic."

Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, disagreed. "In times of great religious fervor, when people feel a mandate to carry their religion out into the world, the First Amendment becomes even more important," said Link. "Separation of church and state, and the free expression clause in the First Amendment _were envisioned to protect the sanctity of religion as much as they were to protect the government."

Others disagreed with the decision for different reasons. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Dick Feagler wrote at the time that this was "a ruling in favor of plagiarism. It allowed the state to steal a good line without giving credit for it."

But in a motion filed in the U.S. district court the state of Ohio stated its position thus: "The reasonable observer understands that the motto was adopted years ago, and while it may have religious roots, it is no more a government endorsement of religion than is Ohio's recognition of the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays."

Christine Link countered that just because overuse of the motto had stripped it of its religious significance, that didn't make it constitutional. Link told the wire service that the motto was "insulting to Christianity," which was also the view of Rev. Peterson. Peterson and the ACLU appealed Judge Graham's decision, and in April of this year they won.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati sided with the ACLU and Peterson, agreeing that the motto did indeed violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The three judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to reverse Judge Graham, accusing him and state officials of stripping the motto of its Christian heritage so it could pass constitutional muster.

If the new ruling stands, the state will have to uproot the bronze placard from the sidewalk at Capitol Square Plaza in Columbus. It will also be forced to eliminate the phrase "With God All Things Are Possible" from the secretary of state's stationery and will have to print new tax forms, as the current forms proudly bear the state motto.

Explaining the panel's stance, Judge Avern Cohn wrote for the majority in ACLU of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board: "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._ 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.

"While the words of the [Ohio] motto may not overtly favor Christianity, as the words of Jesus they, at a minimum _ 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."

Judge Merritt, in a concurring opinion, wrote that 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,' . . . it does not specify a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing God which makes 'all things possible' by intervening in daily affairs," Merritt continued. "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 wrote. "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.' "

Cohn wrote in his ruling for the majority that "the state of Ohio has adopted a motto which crosses the line from evenhandedness toward all religions to a preference for Christianity, in the form of Christian text. . . . Thus, it is an endorsement of Christianity by the state of Ohio."

The one dissenting judge from the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state of Ohio, stating that the word "God" should be interpreted in the more universal sense. 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.'"

Indeed, the Ohio attorney general had argued before the Sixth Circuit Court panel that the meaning of the motto's words simply 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 currency, and therefore should be found constitutional.

Cohn and Judge Gilbert S. Merritt disagreed with Judge Nelson and said both state arguments were unsound and deceptive. Cohn noted that two federal appeals courts since 1970 have ruled that "In God We Trust" is permissible and does not amount to a government sponsorship or endorsement of religion. He also stated that the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided a direct challenge to either the inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance ("One Nation, under God, indivisible _) or "In God We Trust." Citing other appellate court decisions dealing with constitutional challenges to that motto, he said that it "has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion."

Conversely, Cohn stated that when Jesus spoke to His disciples He was explaining to them what was needed of them to enter into the kingdom of heaven and gain salvation, "a uniquely Christian thought not shared by Jews and Muslims," wrote Cohn.

It's interesting to note, however, that a Muslim advocacy group actually sided with the state of Ohio, asking the federal court to let the state keep its motto. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the motto did not promote one religion over another, noting that the Koran also teaches, "Know you not that God is able to do all things?" The Muslim group said the U.S. today faces "a decline both in moral values and in respect for religious and family principles. These problems will not be solved by eliminating references to God from public discourse."

The Muslim group's comments were made too late in the game to have any significant impact on the decision but may be of use in the future. Chris Davey, a spokesperson for the Ohio attorney general's office, confirmed that 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 that the case law is on our side."

Christine Link said she had fully expected Ohio to seek an en banc review of the case, but she was confident that "if the judges on review rely on the panel's majority, then we are in good shape." She believed the panel's decision was a "thoughtful and well reasoned opinion both on the First Amendment and the religious analysis."

Ohio governor Robert A. Taft, on the other hand, promised an appeal of his own: "The state does not use the motto to promote or advance any single set of religious beliefs . . . I will do everything within my power to uphold and defend the motto of our state," he said.

Comments regarding the latest decision in ACLU of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board began coming in immediately after the decision was announced. "This is maybe the blandest statement about God that has ever been struck down," said Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Texas. But, he continued, "there have not been high-profile cases of this sort," specifically involving a slogan. "For the most part, courts haven't been much interested in these cases and have kind of brushed aside challenges."

In a Los Angeles Times commentary, Jeff Bishop of Culver City, California, wrote: "Contrary to the ACLU and the two judges it has duped, the First Amendment only prohibits Congress (and, by extension, the states) from passing laws respecting an establishment of religion. It does not bar any legislative body from passing nonbinding resolutions, and state mottoes clearly fall within that category. If any Ohio resident has suffered legal repercussions for not believing that all things are possible with God, let him be the one to sue; otherwise, let's leave well enough alone. One can only wonder what the ACLU is going to ask for next time."

The Supreme Court's reluctance to face the state/federal motto issue aside, this is a legitimate question, since the controversy surrounding this subject appears to be heating up rather than going away. A handful of other states may soon face problems similar to those of Ohio. South Dakota's motto is "Under God, the People Rule." Arizona's is "God Enriches." Colorado uses "Nothing Without Providence." Florida goes with "In God We Trust," a phrase with unknown origins and a vagueness that has allowed it to escape the scrutiny of federal courts--but for how long? Only time will tell. Since none of these states' phrases are direct quotes from Jesus, and this includes "In God We Trust," they may all escape unscathed. Yet, one thing is certain, this contentious issue probably won't be laid to rest anytime soon.

As for Ohio, if it loses its appeal it could always return to its first motto, "Imperium In Imperio," Latin for "An empire Within an Empire." According to Akron historian George Knepper, however, if the people of Ohio didn't want the motto 132 years ago (the state was without any motto at all from the mid-1800s until 1959), they probably won't want it now. "It was too royal," said Knepper. "Ohio doesn't go much for things royal--or for God, at the moment, it appears."

Deborah Baxtrom is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, California.

*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright
Article Author: Deborah Baxtrom