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STATE RELIGIOUS MOTTOS IN THE UNITED STATES

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Overview:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, requires that a wall of separation be maintained between the government and religion -- or as it is usually expressed, between church and state. Specifically, the First Amendment stipulates that:

bullet individuals will have freedom of religious expression;
bullet the government and its agencies will not recognize one religious faith as more valid than any other faith or secularism;
bullet the government and its agencies will not promote religion above secularism or vice versa.

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State mottos:

There are four states with mottos that mention "God." Most people would probably regard them as being religious mottos:

bullet Arizona: "Ditat Deus" This means "God Enriches in Latin." 
bullet Florida's: "In God We Trust." -- identical to the current national motto
bullet Ohio: "With God, All Things Are Possible." This is a direct biblical quotation from the King James Version of Matthew 19:25-26: "When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
bullet South Dakota's: "Under God, The People Rule.

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Are they constitutional?

These mottos would seem to promote theistic religion at the expense of non-theistic religions and secular belief systems. They imply the existence of a single, male Judeo-Christian deity. Such a concept is foreign to the beliefs of many other religions. Some followers of these religions might find such mottos offensive: 

bullet Agnostics have doubts whether a God exists
bullet Atheists either actively deny the existence of God, or do not have any belief in God.
bullet Buddhists generally do not believe in a personal deity; 
bullet Deists believe in a God, but do not regard him as being currently active in the universe. They believe that God created the universe, wound it up, started it, left, and hasn't been seen since. Thus, they feel that one cannot trust God to help us in any way. 
bullet Hindus believe in a single God with millions of aspects in the form of gods and goddesses. 
bullet Wiccans generally acknowledge two deities: a God and a Goddess.
bullet Zoroastrians believe in two deities: one all good and one all bad.

These mottos would seem to violate the principle of separation of church and state. They promote the existence of God. In fact they recognize a specific concept of God -- the Judeo-Christian model. They are thus advancing some religions at the expense of other faith groups and secular belief systems. But that is not necessarily how the courts interpret these mottos.

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Decisions by the courts on the national motto:

The national motto "In God We Trust." has been challenged by three lawsuits and has consistently been found to be constitutional. Courts have stated that:

bullet the motto "...has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.
bullet the motto's "...primary purpose...was secular; it served as secular ceremonial purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of exchange. 1
bullet "...we find that a reasonable observer, aware of the purpose, context, and history of the phrase 'In God we trust,' would not consider its use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an endorsement of religion." 2

Courts have basically ruled that the national motto is constitutional because it is not really a religious saying.

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The Ohio state motto:

During the 1950's the state organized a contest to select a new motto. A 12-year-old youth from Cincinnati was the winner. When it was adopted by the legislature in 1959, "the Ohio Secretary of State publicly acknowledged in a press release the slogan's Judeo-Christian roots from the book of Matthew." 3 

In 1997, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the motto. 

In 2000-APR, "A three judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the 41-year-old slogan violated the separation of church and state, and was a government endorsement of the Christian religion." 3 The motto, "With God, All Things Are Possible,." is a direct biblical quotation from Matthew 19:26. Judge Avern Cohn wrote in the majority opinion: "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.  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..." The state then appealed the ruling to the full court.

On 2001-MAR-16, the full 6th U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision of its own three judge panel. In a 9 to 4 decision, they declared the Ohio motto "With God All Things Are Possible" to be not a religious slogan. Thus it does not violate the separation of church and state. They ruled that this motto did not differ from other similar references to God, like the current national motto "In God We Trust."  They determined that the motto is a form of "ceremonial deism." It is not sectarian or religious in nature. It resembles certain rituals, such as opening legislatures with an invocation, or an elected official taking their oath of office on a Bible, etc. 

bullet The majority report was prepared by Judge David A.  Nelson. He wrote: "The motto involves no coercion. It does not purport to compel belief or acquiescence. It does not assert a preference for one religious denomination or sect over other.
bullet Four dissenting judges stressed that the Ohio motto is a uniquely Christian slogan; it implies the state's "adoption of Christ's words." Judge Gilbert S.  Merritt was one of the dissenters. He stated that that the state motto was different from the national motto. "In God We Trust" could refer to "any of the gods of the world's vast pantheon of divinity."  However, Ohio's motto is extracted word-for-word from the Bible. He wrote "The state should not align itself with Jesus Christ.  Yet that is precisely what Ohio has done, in big bronze letters in the Capitol Square."

The ruling may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Related essays

bullet The U.S. national motto
bullet Religious symbols used by municipalities and states
bullet What the Bible says about public prayer
bullet Separation of church and state issues
bullet The Istook Constitutional Amendment: 1995-1996
bullet The Istook Constitutional Amendment: 1997-1999
bullet Organizations dealing with separation issues

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References:

  1. "God on our coins," American Atheists at: http://www.atheists.org/public.square/coins.html
  2. "U.S. Supreme Court turns down Foundation appeal," Freedom From Religion Foundation, at: http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/june_july96/igwt.html
  3. "Ohio state motto," AANEWS for 2000-APR-27. 
  4. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' ruling as court upholds Ohio God motto", AANEWS, for 2001-MAR-18.
  5. "A state motto too far: With exacting legal minutiae, circuit court strikes down official Ohio slogan," American Atheists, 2000-APR-27, at: http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/ohio1.htm

Copyright 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-MAR-18
Latest update: 2001-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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