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Ohio Motto Fight Update

On December 18th 1997, a hearing was held on the lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Federal Court in Columbus. Below is an article that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch concerning the issue and the hearing. The court has yet to rule on the suit and when it does I'll have the information here. If you aren't sure what this issue is about, read about it on the Background page. -- dlb

Scholars square off over motto

By Robert Ruth
Dispatch Staff Reporter

Dec. 19, 1997

A federal courtroom was transformed into a theology classroom yesterday as religious scholars debated the meaning of Ohio's motto, "With God, All Things Are Possible."

U.S. District Judge James L. Graham acted as moderator of the debate that pitted Gov. George V. Voinovich's administration and the attorney general's office against the American Civil Liberties Union.

The legal dispute arose after Voinovich proposed in April 1996 carving the motto on the Statehouse. Eight months later, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board voted to inscribe the motto in 6-inch-high bronze letters on the west plaza of the Statehouse grounds facing S. High Street.

The Ohio chapter of the ACLU filed a suit in federal court in Columbus on Sept. 30 contending such a move would violate the separation-of-church-and-state clause of the First Amendment.

Graham yesterday heard six hours of arguments from attorneys and testimony from religious scholars. A decision is expected later.

In opening statements, Mark B. Cohn, an ACLU attorney, conceded that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved the use of some religious-oriented phrases in government, such as the national motto, "In God We Trust."

However, these phrases are general in meaning and do not espouse a particular religion or religious belief, Cohn said.

"With God, All Things Are Possible" is different, testified two ACLU witnesses -- Ronald H. Stone, a professor of Christian ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Matthew W. Peterson, pastor of the Fairmont Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

The phrase is a direct quote from Jesus that is cited in Matthew 19:26, Stone and Peterson testified. Jesus was talking to his disciples about how humans can be saved and go to heaven, the two scholars said.

Jesus was saying, Stone testified, "It's only by the grace of God that someone is saved. It's a fundamental doctrine of salvation." Humans through good works and other deeds cannot ensure a heavenly afterlife, Stone said. Salvation and heaven are only possible through God, he said.

Peterson agreed.

Jesus' words are sacred, he said. It is demeaning to Jesus' words for politicians and governments to use them in secular ways, he added. "I would be frightened if it were degenerated into secular, every-day language," he testified.

Two religious experts for the state -- Thomas P. Kasulis, a comparative religion professor and chairman of comparative studies at Ohio State University, and David J. Belcastro, an associate professor of religious studies at Capital University -- disagreed.

Similar phrases to "With God, All Things Are Possible" are found in the Hebrew Old Testament and the writings of Homer and Sophocles, Belcastro testified.

Many phrases in the Bible, including this one, are open to numerous interpretations, Belcastro said. "They haven't had a fixed meaning throughout time; they don't have a fixed meaning right at this moment," he said.

Kasulis said he believes the phrase has a universal meaning about the limitations of mankind.

"It means we cannot control everything," he said. "Some people call it luck. Some people call it fate. Some people call it God."

During closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Sutton said, "It (the motto) seems to signify hope. It's ubiquitous. It's a phrase that has many meanings."

In questioning attorneys for both sides, Graham appeared concerned about state-produced documents that cite Matthew 19:26 as the source for the motto. Identifying the quote as being from one of the Gospels in the New Testament tells people it is part of the Christian religion, Graham indicated through his questions.

Sutton emphasized that the biblical source for the phrase would not appear on the Statehouse plaza motto.

But Cohn noted that pamphlets produced by the state about Ohio symbols like the state bird, flower and tree identify Matthew 19:26 as the source of the motto. A state web site on the Internet also makes reference to Matthew, he added.

©1997 Columbus Dispatch

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