ACLU v. Ohio (1999)
Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty
After visiting India and seeing the motto "Government Work is God's Work," inscribed on a public building, Governor Voinovich of Ohio worked to have an engraved state seal and the words of the Ohio motto put on a granite plaza at the west end of the state house located in Capitol Square Plaza.
The words of the motto, "With God All Things Are Possible," are a direct quotation from Chapter 19, Verse 26 of the Gospel According to Matthew of the New Testament. The relevant portion states:
The children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and your mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Matthew 19:13-26
In 1996, following an announcement that the Board intended follow the governor's recommendation, plaintiffs brought suit to have the effort halted.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the motto did indeed violate the Establishment Clause by giving government endorsement to the words of a unique religious figure.
A lower district court had found that the motto was permissible arguing that the quote had become decontextualized:
Removed from their Christian New Testament context, the words of the motto do not suggest a denominational preference. They do not state a principle unique to Christianity. They could be classified as generally theistic. They are certainly compatible with all three of the world's major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Statements similar to the words of the motto are found in the Hebrew Bible as well as the Qur'an, the sacred book of the Muslims.
The Circuit Court rejected this argument, quoting the Supreme Court:
Words are not pebbles in alien juxtaposition; they have only a communal existence; and not only does the meaning of each interpenetrate the other, but all in their aggregate take their purport from the setting in which they are used, of which the relation between the speaker and the hearer is perhaps the most important part.
First, the decision emphasized the origin of the motto, showing that it was deliberately chosen from the Bible rather than merely coinciding with it. Second, the court relied upon the expert testimony of numerous religious scholars and ministers who explained how and why the quote does indeed represent something specific about Christianity. Not only does this quote have important religious significance for Christians, but it is also part of actual religious debates and disagreements, something which the government should not be involved in. According to Matthew Peterson, associate pastor of a Presbyterian church in Columbus:
In context this has everything to do with salvation, and it has very important relevance to Christian teachings in context. It is an expression of the omnipotence of God in context with regard specifically to how are we saved. Through Christ, we are saved. Can a rich person be saved? Well, with mortals, with individuals, this is impossible, you cannot effect your own salvation, but with God, with God's grace, a mystery we are not fully sure we understand, we can be saved. God's love is manifold everywhere.
The state is, if it desires to engage as it appears to do in theological dialogue or discourse, is indeed a formidable opponent. It has a breadth and a depth that I as an individual clergymen do not have, and when they desire to engage in the dialogue, a theological dialogue in explaining what they mean by God, I believe that to be an inappropriate moment for the discussion. The discussion needs to be taking place in synagogues and churches and mosques around the state. And even in the halls of legislature, we can discuss the Lord's intention as individual people, but when the state adopts a motto which necessitates theological dialogue to explain it, for example, we mean it has to do with the omnipotence of God, oh, no, what we mean it has to do with salvation, says Legislator X. In that dialogue, in that debate, you are absolutely having a theological discussion. And when it becomes a part of a building or part of Capitol Square, you are solidifying, quite literally, a statement, a theological statement, about God. And certainly in my view, it violates the First Amendment.
The Court agreed that precedent and law allow for non-sectarian references to God in government symbols and practice. But, by rejecting the efforts to decontextualize the quote, the Court could only find that the motto was not non-sectarian:
In the context in which the words of the motto are found - as the words of Jesus speaking of salvation - to a reasonable observer, they must be seen as advancing, or at a minimum, showing a "particular affinity" for Christianity. Simply put, they are an endorsement of the Christian religion by the State of Ohio. No other interpretation in the context of their presence in the New Testament is possible.
We are satisfied that the words of the motto cannot be treated as they were by the district court. 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 Moslems.
Moreover, when an attempt is made to give them a different meaning, as can be seen from the testimony at trial, a theological dispute is the inevitable result. Additionally, the injunctive order blotting out their origin or source simply complicates the problem of meaning. Is the injunction to apply only to a written account of the origin of the words of the motto or does it apply, for example, to security officers in Capitol Square when queried by visitors as to the origin of the words of the motto? And what of the Ohio State Historical Society? Is it also barred from explaining the origin of the words of the motto?
The words of the motto are not to be decontextualized in order to allow them to pass constitutional muster. Whether their source is formally attributed or not to Matthew, they are the words of Jesus. No amount of semantic legerdemain can hide the fact that the official motto of the State of Ohio repeats word-for-word, Jesus' answer to his disciples' questions about the ability to enter heaven, and thereby achieve salvation. As such, to the ears of a reasonable listener, the motto comes directly from the voice of Jesus. To suppress the knowledge that these are the words of Jesus, and to say that they describe something other than the achievement of salvation, is to put a premium on ignorance. Moreover, to enjoin state officials from explaining the origin of the words is to perpetuate such ignorance.
This Circuit Court decision illustrates that government endorsement of religion causes a problem for both government and religion. If the motto is acknowledged as part of the context in which it belongs, it is obviously religious and so is impermissible. However, by decontextualizing it, the government is changing the meaning of a very important statement by the central figure in Christianity. In this way, the government is stepping into the field of religious interpretation, something that it is not only not permitted to do, but something which serious religious believers should abhor.
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