STATE RELIGIOUS MOTTOS IN THE UNITED STATES
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:
||individuals will have freedom of religious expression;
||the government and its agencies will not recognize one religious faith as more valid
than any other faith or secularism;
||the government and its agencies will not promote religion above secularism or vice
There are four states with mottos that mention "God."
Most people would probably regard them as being religious mottos:
Deus" This means "God Enriches in Latin."
Florida's: "In God We Trust." -- identical to the
current national motto
||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."
South Dakota's: "Under God, The People Rule."
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
|| Agnostics have doubts whether a God
||Atheists either actively deny the
existence of God, or do not have any belief in God.
||Buddhists generally do not believe
in a personal deity;
||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
believe in a single God with millions of aspects in the form of gods and
|| Wiccans generally acknowledge two
deities: a God and a Goddess.
|| 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.
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:
||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.
||the motto's "...primary
purpose...was secular; it served as secular ceremonial
purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of
||"...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.
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
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.
||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."
||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.
"God on our coins," American Atheists at: http://www.atheists.org/public.square/coins.html
"U.S. Supreme Court turns down Foundation appeal,"
Freedom From Religion Foundation, at: http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/june_july96/igwt.html
"Ohio state motto," AANEWS for 2000-APR-27.
" 'Don't ask, don't tell' ruling as court upholds Ohio God
motto", AANEWS, for 2001-MAR-18.
"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
Originally written: 2001-MAR-18
Latest update: 2001-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson