In a lengthy and carefully reasoned opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared the official motto of the State of Ohio unconstitutional. The motto "With God All Things Are Possible" was adopted after being suggested by a Cincinnati boy in 1959. The motto is a direct quote from Matthew 19:26, one of the four Christian Gospels, in which Jesus answers questions from a follower about the path to eternal salvation. The Biblical origins of the motto played a crucial part in the decision announced by the Cincinnati based federal appellate court this morning. The decision overturns a lower federal court ruling which upheld the motto in September 1998.
The appellate decision comes after more than three years of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation on behalf of the organization itself and the Reverend Matthew Peterson, a Cleveland area Presbyterian minister. Cleveland attorney Marc Cohn, and Cleveland State University Law Professor Thomas Buckley represented Peterson and the ACLU in the case.
The opinion considers the state motto at great length, and concludes that it cannot be considered a neutral statement of deism, like the familiar "In God We Trust" because it cannot properly be understood other than in its biblical context. In that light, the Court held, the motto is far from neutral: rather, it is an expression of a particularly Christian approach to salvation, divine intervention in human affairs, and the ability of individuals to affect their own ultimate destiny. "We are delighted with the ruling, which once again affirms the bedrock principal that the state cannot, and should not choose between competing religious doctrines," said Chris Link, Executive Director of the Ohio ACLU. The opinion is notable for both its length and the complexity of its reasoning, which turns on questions of both law and theology. "Remarkably, advocates of the state motto attempted to drain the passage of its theological significance in their effort to avoid the First Amendment implications of its meaning," noted ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari. "It is just another example of how state sponsorship ultimately does no favors to religion."