While cleaning out some old files, I came across a 1998 newspaper clipping that opposed the use of the Ohio state motto, ‘With God All Things Are Possible‘, as a lawn decoration at the statehouse. ACLU of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board was the first separation of church and state case I followed closely. I published handcrafted web pages that included some thoughts about the case and the text of newspaper clippings from the time. Even 20 years later, the Ohio state motto is still religious.
Back in mid 90s, the Ohio Governor at the time, George Voinovich, had seen religious messages engraved onto government buildings while on a trade trip to India. He thought since the Ohio state house was getting a massive restoration at the time that it would be a good idea to engrave our religous state motto, ‘With God All Things Are Possible’, on the building.
Voinovich tried the usual processes, of the time, by getting a bill passed in the legislature.
When he got some resistance to the idea he decided to go around the legislature.
The quasi-government agency responsible for the state house and grounds, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, agreed to engrave the state seal and motto on a granite plaza on the west side of the Statehouse.
Eventually the ACLU sued the state for a violation of the 1st amendment since the source of the motto is the Holy Bible – Matthew 19:26:
Since the motto was adopted in the 1950s, the state had pointed out it was a quote from the bible in promotional material about state symbols.
*side note* Like 99% of church and state separation cases, the person who brought the case was not an atheist. The person was a minister of a NE Ohio church.
Like other court cases involving religious symbols, the theists marshaled massive public support:
On September 1, 1998, U.S. District Judge James L. Graham upheld the motto, finding it to be “generically theistic” without endorsing any particular denomination, but he enjoined the state from citing its source. The state carried out the installation within days. On April 25, 2000, a panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling, finding it to be a “uniquely Christian thought not shared by Jews and Moslems”. However, the Council on American–Islamic Relations disputed this finding, citing verse 2:106 of the Quran, while the World Vaisnava Association objected on the basis of Hindu scriptures.
By this time, there was significant public support for the motto. A June 2000 Ohio Poll conducted by the University of Cincinnati found that 62% of Ohioans were aware of the April ruling; of them, 11% agreed with it while 88% disagreed. The U.S. House of Representatives weighed in, voting 333–27 (with 66 voting “present”) to pass a non-binding resolution, sponsored by Representatives Mike Oxley and Tony P. Hall of Ohio, that expressed support for Ohio’s motto and others that refer to God. The entire Ohio delegation except for Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones voted in favor. By December, Attorney General Betty Montgomery’s office had received 15,000 letters of support regarding the ACLU case, more than on any other issue during her term.
The ACLU lost in the first round decided in September of 1998. The judge ruled that as long as the state didn’t point out it was part of a Bible quote it could use the motto:
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.
A 3 judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in April 2000 while an appeal to the full court ruled 9-4 in March of 2001 that the motto was constitutional. The ACLU decided against taking the case to the US Supreme Court.
As long as the state ignores the religious meaning from the quote then there is no violation.
That brings me to the clipping I found recently in a box of old files.
In a January 1998 column by Columbus Dispatch writer Joe Blundo, he talks about the state’s argument that the motto has no specific religious meaning. Blundo didn’t like that argument.
This doesn’t make me feel better. I don’t trust politicians with the Bible. I think more than a few of them are convinced they know exactly what that motto means and are only too willing to use it, and anything else they find in the book, to justify whatever they feel like doing.
But let’s say the motto really is just an ambiguous little phrase. What’s the point of displaying it, then? The state is waging legal war for the right to say something that means nothing and everything?
What kind of a statement of faith is that?
It’s this kind:
If the motto means whatever anyone wants it to mean, then the point of displaying it must not be to inspire or instruct. It must simply be to show that it can be done.
And those who want to show that it can be done are assuming, no doubt, that it’s the right thing to do.
And if they’re assuming it’s the right thing to do, then they must be assuming that God would approve.
And this brings us back to the problem of state authorities assuming they know the will of God.
They don’t. Which is why I don’t like the motto.
The other problem of using state supported religious symbols, like Ohio’s motto, is they don’t make the government more efficient, make better choices, or be more ethical. Religious symbols won’t clear snow off the roads any faster, make people safer, or help kids learn better.
Religious symbols, like the motto, are more like a kid tagging an overpass with spray paint. It’s to get attention, show ownership, or for expressing power.
Religious symbols are not inclusive of all the citizens.
No matter how the state wants to make the motto meaningless you can’t take the religious meaning out of it.
Twenty years later the Ohio state motto is still religious and still violates the 1st amendment no matter what twisting of the facts the court agreed to do.
After including the found clipping in my Ohio Motto case web pages I also cleaned up the other pages and fixed a few dead links.
If you are interested in the case and want to read the news coverage from that time period check out my mini-site: