CINCINNATI - With judges, all kinds of decisions are possible.
Nearly a year ago, a three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ohio's motto - “With God, All Things Are Possible” - is unconstitutional because it is a government endorsement of religion.
In a 9-4 decision released yesterday, the entire federal appeals court reversed that decision. The majority said the motto does not violate the section of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the federal government from establishing an official religion, the court's majority said.
“The motto involves no coercion,” wrote Judge David A. Nelson, a Reagan appointee. “It does not purport to compel belief or acquiescence. It does not command participation in any form of religious exercise.”
The ruling means Ohio can continue to use the motto on everything from state tax returns to stationary for the Secretary of State's office.
The decision was a blow to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which challenged the constitutionality of the motto in 1997. ACLU attorneys said they had not decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is a decision that takes an extraordinarily narrow view of what the [U.S. Constitution] permits and forbids, and a narrow view informed by a particular ideology that seeks to roll back the clock on separation of church and state,” said Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the Ohio ACLU.
State attorneys argued that taken away from their context in the New Testament, the words in the motto merely “inculcate hope and acknowledge the humility of Ohio's government and its leaders.”
Mr. Vasvari said the full appeals court had bought the state's argument, turning the motto into the “biblical equivalent of “Have a nice day.' ''
``They've watered it down in a way that real Christians should find very offensive,” Mr. Vasvari said.
Two Republican Ohio officeholders who frequently blend religion with their pronouncements on government cheered the ruling.
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, when he was governor, pushed to have the motto inscribed on the walkway leading to the Statehouse.
“When I saw the motto on the Statehouse grounds during Governor Rhodes' funeral, I had a sense of sadness because I wondered if it would be there the next time I visited. Now I know it will be,” he said.
Secretary of State Ken Blackwell said the motto was never intended to promote a specific religion.
“It does, however, remind Ohioans of something greater than ourselves from which we may draw strength and comfort if we choose,” he said.
In April, 2000, a 2-1 decision from the federal appeals court based in Cincinnati sided with the ACLU, ruling that Ohio's motto went too far because it is the only one to quote directly from the Old or New Testament of the Bible.
“With God, All Things Are Possible” is from chapter 19, verse 26 of the Gospel According to Matthew of the New Testament.
Attorney General Betty Montgomery responded by asking the full 13-member federal appeals court to review the decision. The court then delayed the order that the state couldn't use the motto.