Ohio's religious motto debated in court: Round 2

The next round of the case ACLU v. The State of Ohio over the state motto "With God All Things Are Possible", opened in a 6th Circuit Courtroom in Cincinnati on Thursday November 4th, 1999.

The following article appeared in the 11/5/99 edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

From the comments of the justices, it doesn't look good for those who know that the motto is unconstitutional. --dlb

Ohio's religious motto debated in court

Friday, November 05, 1999


CINCINNATI - One federal appeals court judge held aloft a dollar bill emblazoned with the slogan "In God We Trust."

And, he said, Ohio State University law students are trained in a building engraved with the biblical phrase, "Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free."

Then a black-robed colleague called Scripture's most famous judge, King Solomon, a decent poet but "just a king in a line of kings. He led a rather raunchy life."

Perhaps seeking divine inspiration, the presiding judge seated between them dipped freely into the Book of Psalms, Greek mythology and the boosterish musings of former Gov. James A. Rhodes, whose unofficial state motto was "Profit Is Not a Dirty Word in Ohio."

The exasperated presiding judge then wondered aloud why the American Civil Liberties Union waited 40 years to challenge Ohio's official state slogan, "With God All Things Are Possible."

So it went yesterday in a hearing at the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where a roomful of lawyers debated the motto's meaning in everything from Zeus and Athena to Sen. George V. Voinovich's religious convictions, which all agreed were sincere.

A decision is not expected for several months.

The ACLU pressed the three-judge panel yesterday to erase the phrase "With God All Things Are Possible" from all state buildings and publications, including income tax forms.

ACLU lawyer Mark B. Cohn of Cleveland said Ohio's motto originated in Chapter 19 of the Gospel of Matthew and was a direct quotation from Jesus.

He said the motto was an unconstitutional effort by state government to endorse Christian religious beliefs over those of other faiths.

Cohn said Congress officially adopted "In God We Trust" as the national motto in the 1950s. Ohio lawmakers chose the state's phrase in 1959 after lobbying by a Cincinnati 13-year-old old named James Mastronardo.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit seeking to expunge Ohio's state motto after then-Gov. Voinovich had it inscribed in a plaza outside the main entrance to the Statehouse in Columbus.

He said Voinovich had an "interest in putting religion into government," which spurred the ACLU to act.

Assistant Ohio Attorney General David M. Gormley said Ohio's motto was not an official attempt to promote religion. He called it a "respectful reference to a generic, nondenominational god."

Gormley said the phrase does not endorse Christianity but is meant to convey "words of hope and optimism about Ohio's future."

Judge David A. Nelson of Cleveland, who held the dollar aloft, complained that the ACLU was trying to eradicate a symbol that had been around for decades without much public agitation in Ohio for its demise.

"Don't we have to accept some irritation," Nelson said, pointing out that some religious symbols displayed in public places annoy him, but that doesn't mean they should be obliterated. "Not everything that is irritating is unconstitutional."

He said there are biblical inscriptions on public buildings in Washington and he asked the ACLU lawyer, "I'm wondering if you're going to go after the Lincoln Memorial next?"

Cohn replied: "I'm not."


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