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State's Reaction to Motto Ruling

April 26, 2000

The following article appeared on the day after the 6th District Court of Appeals ruled that the Ohio state motto "With God All Things Are Possible" was unconstitutional.

Instead of chucking the motto, Ohio leaders have decided to spend tax dollars to preserve the status quo at the US Supreme Court. --dlb

State motto ruled unconstitutional

Governor calls ruling 'off-base'; ACLU calls it 'victory'

Wednesday, April 26, 2000

By Alan Johnson Dispatch Statehouse Reporter

Ohio leaders will fight a federal court decision stripping the state motto -- "With God, all things are possible'' -- from all official uses.

In a 2-1 decision, a three-member panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati yesterday ruled the 41-year-old motto an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the state. The appellate court directed the U.S. District Court in Columbus to order removal of the words from the Statehouse, state publications, stationery and other such items.

But that won't happen immediately -- if at all.

Calling the decision "off-base,'' Gov. Bob Taft immediately recommended an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I believe the people of Ohio strongly support our state motto,'' he said. "I don't believe there is any evidence that our state motto has been utilized in any way to advance or discriminate against a single religion.''

Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery will appeal the decision, spokesman Chris Davey said, and fight an injunction banning the use of the motto.

"We will do whatever is necessary to allow the motto to remain in use while the case is litigated,'' Davey said.

The state can appeal the decision either to the full 13-member 6th Circuit Court or directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit challenging the motto, called the ruling "an all-out victory.''

"The decision is pretty specific that the use of a biblical phrase is an inappropriate motto and an inappropriate practice for state government,'' said Mark B. Cohn, an attorney for the ACLU.

Cohn said the ACLU will oppose state efforts to delay an injunction on the motto's use.

"If somebody is trespassing on your front lawn, you want them to stop that day,'' he said. "One more day is an infringement of your rights.

"Our country was founded . . . by people who left places where government was involved in religion and repressed them. The government is not free to take action favoring religion.''

The motto borrows from Matthew 19:26. The court ruled that the motto "crosses the line from evenhandedness toward all religions'' and leaves the impression that the state has given "an unconstitutional preference to Christianity.''

Judges Gilbert Merritt and Avern Cohn made up the majority; Judge David Nelson dissented.

"This decision should not be viewed as hostile to religion, but rather, an effort to assure government neutrality in relation to religion. Finding a state's official motto unconstitutional is not something we, as judges, do lightly,'' the judges wrote.

The ruling reversed a Sept. 1, 1998, decision by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham, who allowed the state to use the motto, but prohibited officials from citing Scripture as its source.

Then-Gov. George V. Voinovich triggered the debate in April 1996 when he proposed carving the motto on the Statehouse after seeing a similar slogan on a government building during a trip to India.

Voinovich said yesterday that he is disappointed with the ruling but he confident that the motto will be declared constitutional on appeal.

"It is hard for me to understand how this court could say that it is constitutional for the U.S. to use 'In God We Trust' on our currency and then rule that Ohio's motto . . . is unconstitutional.''

On Sept. 30, 1997, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit asking that the motto be declared unconstitutional and that the state be banned from using it in any fashion. The group argued that the motto violates the First Amendment clause requiring separation of church and state. The suit was filed on behalf of the Rev. Matthew Peterson, a Presbyterian minister from Cleveland.

The motto is a prominent part of a $47,000 bronze inset with the Great Seal on the Statehouse plaza facing S. High Street. It also appears on dozens of state documents, including tax forms for personal property, income, cigarettes, wine and motor fuel.

As two state workers polished the seal at the Statehouse yesterday, several passers-by expressed astonishment at the ruling.

"I think it's ridiculous,'' Keith Cole of Columbus said as he looked down at the bronze insets on the walk. "I don't think it's violating anyone's rights. There's no reason it should be taken to court.''

"Give me a break!'' said Carol Carper of Columbus. "If more of them (judges and people in general) would read Matthew, there wouldn't be half the problems we have today.''

Shawn Nicholson of Columbus agreed that the motto should stay.

"It's a part of history,'' he said.

The motto was the idea of James Mastronardo, a 12-year-old Cincinnati boy who asked the legislature to adopt it more than 40 years ago.

Gov. Michael V. DiSalle signed the law adopting the state motto effective Oct. 1, 1959.

The state had been motto-less for 91 years. The old state motto -- "Imperium in Imperio,'' a Latin phrase meaning "An Empire Within An Empire'' -- was dropped in 1868 because it smacked of royalty.

Besides Ohio, three other states have the word God in their mottos:

Arizona - Ditat deus (God enriches)

Florida - In God we trust

South Dakota - Under God, the people rule

Dispatch Politics Editor Joe Hallett and Statehouse Reporter James Bradshaw contributed to this story.

©2000 Columbus Dispatch

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