- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

The State of Ohio's official motto sponsors the New Testament's salvational creed expressed in Chapter 19, Verse 26 of the Gospel According to Matthew: "With God All Things Are Possible." A 12-year-old Cincinnati schoolboy proposed the motto inspired by his New Testament learning. On the day of its official promulgation, Oct. 1, 1959, the secretary of state underscored its genesis: "The boy started petitioning the Legislature when he was 9 years old, [sic] Jimmy chose a verse in the New Testament, Matthew 19:26, 'But Jesus beheld them and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible,' from which to draw the official motto."

Doesn't Ohio's state motto unmistakably endorse a seminal religious precept of a particular sect? No Muslim would mistake it for a passage in the Holy Koran, nor a Mormon as an excerpt from the Book of Mormon, nor a Jew as a snippet out of the Pentateuch. And the motto may be more alienating to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or other adherents whose creeds deny Jesus even a cameo appearance in salvation, reincarnation, or the like. And Ohio's preference for New Testament doctrine was clearly intended. Its legislators knew of the motto's holy provenance, either from their own religious training or from Jimmy's catechism. A pamphlet, Ohio's Citizen Digest, distributed by the secretary of state, expressly identifies the New Testament as its source, as does an Ohio Historical Society publication. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio vs. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board (April 25, 2000) thus seems irreproachable for holding the sectarian motto a violation of the First Amendment's command of religious neutrality.

The ACLU of Ohio and a Presbyterian minister initiated the lawsuit. The motto, it was said, symbolized state apotheosis of a New Testament explanation of salvation, even for a rich man. That sectarian symbolism was powerful and potentially explosive, not anemic. As Associate Justice Robert Jackson sermonized generally in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette (1943): "Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality, is a shortcut from mind to mind. Causes and nations, political parties, lodges and ecclesiastical groups seek to knit the loyalty of their followings to a flag or banner, a color or design. The state announces rank, function and authority through crowns, maces, uniforms and black robes; the church speaks through the Cross, the Crucifix, the altar and shrine, and clerical raiment. Symbols of state often convey political ideas just as religious symbols come to convey theological ones."

State preference for one religious doctrine over another thus defies a central commandment of the First Amendment: equal rights, dignity, respect and accommodation for all religions. The wisdom of that political gospel seems beyond question. History, both modern and ancient, demonstrate the incendiary and sanguinary nature of religious divisions and prejudices: the persecution of Jews and Christians under the Roman Empire; the Arian heresy; the subjugation of non-Muslims with the rise of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers; strife between Sunni and Shi'ite; the Crusades; the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Rome; the French religious wars culminating in King Henry IV's capitulation to popular prejudice, "Paris is well worth a Mass"; the English Civil War; discrimination against Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Jews in the United States; Jihads against infidels; Hindus against Muslims and vice versa. The potential list is endless, and invites criticism for omitting examples of religious intolerance of equal or greater revulsion. A concession to the shortness of life is the only penitential defense.

Ohio's oblation to the New Testament, it might be urged, is many heavens away from the Spanish Inquisition's autos-da-fe or their equivalents. Its motto bestows no legal advantage on New Testament believers, and its promotion of their proselytizing mission is marginal. Matters of religion, however, stir the deepest emotions and resentments, and chronically provoke quarrels over what seem to outsiders to be doctrinal straws. Countless believers have died over whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, or whether God and Jesus are of the same substance.

Ohio summoned no Muslim, Jew, or other non-adherent to the New Testament to support its claim its motto was religiously non-degrading or equally respectful of all creeds. The appeals court decree in ACLU of Ohio ending that state marriage with Christianity thus deserves a homily, not an anathema. If the establishment clause of the First Amendment means anything, it means government has no business in boosting one religion over another.

Uninformed critics of the precedent who fear it champions hostility toward religion hallucinate. As the U.S. Supreme Court preached in Board of Education of Western Community Schools vs. Mergens (1990) in upholding the Equal Access Act, government may direct evenhanded treatment between religious and non-religious activity without running afoul of the Constitution.



Bruce Fein is a lawyer and free-lance writer specializing in legal issues.

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