Why the Ohio Motto is Unconstitutional?

By Doug Berger

I wanted to give some brief background on the Ohio Motto Case for those you are wondering why the Ohio motto "With God all things are possible" is unconstitutional while our national motto "In God We Trust" has passed muster in previous court challenges. The quotes included here are taken from the posted 6th Circuit full opinion. Links to the opinion can be found at the end of this article.

The 6th Circuit decided that Ohio's motto was a direct quote from Jesus and because of that the words were strictly Christian in nature.

"The words of the motto are not to be decontextualized in order to allow them to pass constitutional muster. Whether their source is formally attributed or not to Matthew, they are the words of Jesus. 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' questions about the ability to enter heaven, and thereby achieve salvation. As such, to the ears of a reasonable listener, the motto comes directly from the voice of Jesus. To suppress the knowledge that these are the words of Jesus, and to say that they describe something other than the achievement of salvation, is to put a premium on ignorance. Moreover, to enjoin state officials from explaining the origin of the words is to perpetuate such ignorance.

In sum, fairly read and understood, 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 district court had ruled that the words were from Jesus and in the 1998 ruling the judge said the state could display the motto but not say it came from the Bible. The 6th Circuit decided that wasn't correct.

Another reason Ohio's motto was unconstitutional is based on the test called Ceremonial Deism which was introduced within the last 30 years.

"V. Ceremonial Deism(11)

A. Preliminary

Practices closer to home which now require discussion are our national motto, "In God We Trust," the inclusion of God into the pledge of allegiance, and again, prayer in conjunction with legislative sessions. These practices have come to be discussed under the rubric "ceremonial deisms," a term first found in the literature in a reference to the 1962 Meiklejohn Lecture at Brown University given by Dean Eugene Rostow of Yale University Law School.(12) Regrettably, the reference is in a book review by Professor Arthur E. Sutherland of Harvard University Law School and then only in a footnote. See Sutherland Book Review, 40 Ind. L.J. 83, 86 n. 7 (1965). Professor Sutherland said:

. . . constitutional tolerance of the opening prayers in the Congress would require some other theory - possibly the idea that another class of public activity, which the Dean of the Yale Law School recently called "ceremonial deism," can be accepted as so conventional and uncontroversial as to be constitutional."

***

Justice O'Connor, in her concurring opinion in Allegheny, explained ceremonial deism as follows:

Justice Kennedy submits that the endorsement test is inconsistent with our precedents and traditions because, in his words, if it were "applied without artificial exceptions for historical practice," it would invalidate many traditional practices recognizing the role of religion in our society." This criticism shortchanges both the endorsement test itself and my explanation of the reason why certain long standing government acknowledgments of religion do not, under that test, convey a message of endorsement. Practices such as legislative prayers or opening Court sessions with "God save the United States and this honorable Court" serve the secular purposes of "solemnizing public occasions" and "expressing confidence in the future" These examples of ceremonial deism do not survive Establishment Clause scrutiny simply by virtue of their historical longevity alone. Historical acceptance of a practice does not in itself validate that practice under the Establishment Clause if the practice violates the values protected by that Clause, just as historical acceptance of racial or gender based discrimination does not immunize such practices from scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment."

The 6th Circuit then explained about mottos in general as symbolic speech and then they said this:

"It is equally so with a state motto. The words of a motto are a form of symbolic speech whether vocalized or read and, therefore, take their meaning from the text in which they are located, as we shall describe."

The context of "In God We Trust" or "Under God" from the pledge come from the motto and the pledge not the Bible. "With God All Things are Possible" is a direct quote from the New Testament and the context is from the NT and so it shows affinity for the Christian religion. They equated the Ohio Motto with the Nativity Scene placed on the steps of a courthouse by itself rather than with the national motto.

The 6th District also noted that the national motto and pledge have not been challenged to the Supreme Court but they used many previous Supreme Court decisions for their reasoning.

Ohio is thinking about appealing. They could appeal directly to the Supreme Court or to the full 6th Circuit. If it goes all the way to the Supreme Court and the ruling holds it could open a door to challenge the national motto and pledge.

The full text of the opinion can be found here:
Motto Ruling PDF


Back to ACLU vs Ohio

OR

Back to Doug's Views

Layout and Contents ©1999-2016 Doug Berger