- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

A federal appeals court yesterday ruled that Ohio's state motto since 1959 a passage from Matthew that says "With God, all things are possible" is unconstitutional.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided 2-1 that the motto's source in the New Testament made it an illegal establishment of the Christian religion. A lower court had allowed the pithy phrase.

"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," the court said.

"When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he was explaining to them what was needed of them to enter Heaven and achieve salvation, a uniquely Christian thought not shared by Jews and Muslims," Judge Avern Cohn wrote for the majority.

In a dissent, Judge David Nelson said he found Ohio's motto no more troubling than the words "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins.

"It's a disappointing ruling," Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery said in a statement. "Our argument has been and continues to be that the motto does not promote religion and thus does not violate the Constitution."

She said the state is considering its options asking for review by the entire 13-judge 6th Circuit or appealing to the Supreme Court and meanwhile will request a stay of the decision until the appeal process is over.

The motto, which for years has been printed on the Ohio secretary of state's stationery, on some state reports and on Ohio tax returns, gained attention in 1996 when Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich proposed chiseling it on a granite plaza near the statehouse.

"That brought the whole thing to public attention," said Cleveland law professor Thomas D. Buckley, who helped the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union file the lawsuit. "No one knew about it until then."

The ACLU conducted a poll that found that only 2 percent of Ohio residents could describe the state motto.

In 1998, a federal judge in Columbus had ruled that the motto was constitutional as long as its biblical source was not cited. Soon after that Mr. Voinovich now a U.S. senator had the phrase inscribed on a bronze state seal inlaid in a statehouse sidewalk.

The plaintiff in the initial lawsuit and the appeal of the 1998 ruling was the Rev. Matthew Peterson of Fairmount Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). He is a member of the ACLU board of directors for the state.

Mr. Buckley, the law professor, said the ruling is narrow. Also, it only affects states in the 6th Circuit Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

Andrea Wims, a member of the American Baptist churches, heard of the ruling at work in Cleveland yesterday and said she agrees with putting aside the motto.

"Personally, I believe that with God all things are possible, but I wouldn't want to push that idea on anyone else," she said. "The word God, I think, is the operative word. The state has to be inclusive of everyone."

Legal analysts yesterday were divided on the ruling.

Kevin Hasson, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonpartisan, interfaith public-interest law firm, said that modern law easily ignores the historic basis of the God concept in the country's legal rights.

"Our liberty presupposes a deity that gives us rights," Mr. Hasson said.

He cited the ongoing debate about the origins of the Constitution, with some lawyers arguing that the Constitution is neutral on religion while others contend that the Constitution was neutral because all the original state constitutions mentioned God.

"The ACLU doesn't have the guts to go after the federal motto, 'In God We Trust,' because they know they'd lose," Mr. Hasson said. "So they go after someone smaller, like Ohio."

Federal court challenges to putting "In God We Trust" on currency, coins and stamps have all failed, most recently in 1996 in a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Supreme Court declined to review.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the 6th Circuit ruling is akin to ones that have rejected Christian mottos or images, such as a cross, on city or county seals.

"I do think this is a very easy case," Mr. Lynn said. "Quoting Scripture in an official state motto is not government neutrality on religion. On the other hand, it's demeaning to religion when you say its language is not truly religious."

Even if the phrase came from Benjamin Franklin, and not St. Matthew, it still is a religious claim, Mr. Lynn said. "I would take the position that the state would still be making a preference for religion over non-religion," he said.

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