Judge OKs inscribing God motto at Statehouse

From the 9/2/1998 Columbus Dispatch

September 2, 1998

By Robert Ruth

Dispatch Staff Reporter

Ohio's state motto -- "With God All Things Are Possible'' -- can be installed on the west plaza of the Statehouse, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

But the state is prohibited from citing Scripture as the source of the motto, U.S. District Judge James L. Graham said in a 22-page opinion.

The motto can be used in official documents and other state publications, Graham wrote. But these references -- like the Statehouse plaza inscription -- cannot cite Matthew 19:26 as the source.

The judge's decision results from a legal dispute between Gov. George V. Voinovich's administration and the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In April 1996, Voinovich proposed carving the motto on the Statehouse. In December 1996, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board voted to inscribe the motto in 6-inch bronze letters on the Statehouse plaza facing S. High Street.

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in Columbus last Sept. 30 asking that the motto be declared unconstitutional and that the state be banned from using it on the plaza and in other official capacities.

In a six-hour hearing on Dec. 18, the ACLU argued that the motto violates the First Amendment clause requiring separation of church and state.

The motto is a direct quote by Jesus taken from the book of Matthew in the New Testament, the ACLU said. Jesus was referring to the Christian concept of how humans can get to heaven, the ACLU argued.

Other religious phrases used by governments, such as the national motto of "In God We Trust,'' are general in nature and not geared to a single religion, it said.

The ACLU's arguments were opposed in the hearing by the Voinovich administration and Solicitor Jeff Sutton, an employee of Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office.

Mark B. Cohn, an attorney for the ACLU, said yesterday his organization will review Graham's ruling before deciding whether to appeal.

Voinovich applauded Graham's decision.

"I am gratified by the judge's ruling,'' Voinovich said. "Historically, our state and national leaders have acknowledged the spiritual dimension of our public life. It is fitting that the restoration of the Statehouse reflects the spiritual foundation of our democratic principles.''

Graham wrote that the First Amendment requires separation of religion and government. However, the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled that the amendment does not ban all expressions of religion by governments, Graham added.

For instance, a 1983 Supreme Court decision upheld the Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening each session with a prayer, Graham noted. Also, the oaths of office for federal judges include the phrase, "so help me God,'' Graham noted.

Federal court hearings and trials are opened with the phrase, "God save the United States and this honorable court,'' Graham added. "In God We Trust'' is engraved on coins and in the chambers of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, Graham wrote.

"That this nation was founded on transcendent values, which flow from a belief in a Supreme Being, seems beyond dispute,'' Graham wrote. "Official mottoes, oaths and inscriptions, which acknowledge the religious heritage of our nation, are also deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.''

Opponents of such mottoes and inscriptions often cite Thomas Jefferson in their arguments, Graham said. These critics note that Jefferson once wrote that the First Amendment creates "a wall of separation'' between church and state.

But Jefferson had almost no input into drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Graham said.

In addition, Jefferson's views on religion were atypical of those held by most of America's other political leaders in the 18th century, Graham wrote.

Graham agreed with the ACLU that the motto represents a direct quote from Jesus in the New Testament. But the average citizen is unaware of the citation in Matthew, Graham said.

"Removed from their Christian New Testament context, the words of the motto do not suggest a denominational preference,'' he wrote. "They do not state a principle unique to Christianity. They are certainly compatible with all three of the world's major monotheistic religions.''

Therefore, the state can continue using the motto, Graham ruled.

Dennis Trimble, superintendent of buildings and grounds for the Statehouse, said it should take contractors no more than several weeks to inscribe the motto into the west plaza. However, Trimble said he must wait for the OK from his superiors before ordering the work to begin.

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