Thursday, December 07, 2000

God in Ohio motto argued in court


At issue: Is Christianity endorsed?

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A federal court opened its session Wednesday with a clerk reading aloud the traditional phrase, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

        Thirteen judges then spent the afternoon debating whether a reference to God belongs in Ohio's state motto.

        The motto — “With God, all things are possible” — is being challenged in the federal courts by opponents who say the phrase violates the U.S. Constitution.

        Ohio adopted the motto in 1959 after a 12-year-old Cincinnati boy, Jim Mastronardo, suggested it and launched a petition drive.

        The appeals court is expected to take several months to make a decision. Lawyers on both sides have said they will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose.

        The court battle over the separation of church and state went before a full panel of judges Wednesday at the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

        The key to the case is whether the motto is significantly different from traditional, ceremonial references to God, such as the opening phrase read in court Wednesday.

        Lawyers for the Ohio Attorney General's office see no difference. They say it is the same as “In God We Trust” appearing on coins or students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

        “This reference to a non- denominational God is in line with what has always been accepted in this country,” said David Gormley, a lawyer for Attorney General Betty Montgomery.

        But opponents say the motto is different because it is drawn directly from the Christian Bible. While “In God We Trust” is taken from a stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Ohio's motto is taken from a quote attributed to Jesus Christ.

        “The Ohio motto is spoken by Jesus and is referring to salvation,” said Mark B. Cohn, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “These words are Christian, and the state of Ohio has acknowledged they are Christian.”

        He said the motto suggests the government is endorsing the Christian faith over others. And that, he said, violates a clause in the First Amendment that forbids the government from establishing a religion.

        The issue was first raised three years ago when a suburban Cleveland Presbyterian minister and the ACLU filed a lawsuit seeking to throw out the motto.

        The lawsuit was in response to then-Gov. George Voinovich's decision to have the motto engraved on a granite plaza near the Statehouse in Columbus.

        A three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed with Mr. Cohn in April, concluding the motto was unconstitutional because it made Christianity the “preferred religion to the people of Ohio.”

        But after reviewing the case, the full court agreed to reconsider that decision. The judges challenged both sides with questions Wednesday.

        “How about, "With Allah, all things are possible?'” suggested Judge Karen Moore, referring to the word used for God in the Muslim faith.

        Mr. Gormley said a reference to Allah would not be acceptable because it refers to a “particular God,” one associated with a specific religion.

        Mr. Cohn argued that the motto already refers to a specific religion: Christianity.

        Several judges focused their questions on whether “an informed observer” would know the motto was drawn from the Christian Bible.

        Judge Danny Boggs said he did a computer search of “With God, all things are possible” and found the phrase most often was used in nondenominational settings. He said one reference involved a baseball player talking about his team's chances of beating the New York Yankees.

       



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