No Almighty God for Ohio

Steven Hayward

April 1, 2000

News out of Ohio this week brings to the fore a striking irony. Thirty years ago conservatives, led by then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, attempted to impeach the liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. But if Douglas were still alive and on the Court today, it would be the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that would want to impeach him.

Why? Because Justice Douglas once deigned to admit in a Supreme Court opinion that “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” But this week a Federal court has said that Ohio’s state motto, “With God all things are possible,” violates the First Amendment’s clause that dictates the separation of church and state, and is therefore unconstitutional. Of course, Congress opens each day with a prayer, and our money carries the national motto “In God we trust,” but the ACLU argued that the Ohio motto was unacceptable because it comes directly from the New Testament, and is therefore “sectarian.” The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU (which, by the way, should really stand for “Anti-Christian Litigation Unit”), and said the Ohio motto must go.

On the surface the reasoning of the decision seems to be plausible. Generic references to God, such as “In God we trust,” may be acceptable (though if you hook up the ACLU to a lie detector, I’ll bet they want to scuttle that, too), while references partial to a particular creed or denomination clearly violate settled case law that prohibits the government from favoring any specific religion. Yet the Ohio decision would also seem to proscribe any state from using “God is great” as a motto because the phrase appears in the Koran. This absurd result suggests the case law on religion went off the deep end a long time ago, because the core of the case law says that any government “support” or “expression” of religion,
such as a motto or a Christmas crèche in front of city hall, must have a “secular” purpose. If God has a sense of humor, saying that references to God must have a secular purpose is surely one of the bigger laughs He gets out of watching human folly. In plain language, the sum of case law means that when we publicly invoke God, we’re not supposed to mean it. We can say “In God we trust,” only so long as it is not a deity anyone trusts for real. It can have no more content that invoking “Oh Great Pumpkin.”

In practice the Ohio decision means that any public reference to God must not admit any of the specific attributes of God. “With God all things are possible” is clearly a description of God’s most basic attribute—His omnipotence, without which God would not be God. All religions believe that with God all things are possible. The New Testament passages that say “With God all things are possible” is a longhand way of saying “Almighty God,” which also appears in the Bible. If the Ohio decision was extended to strike down any public references to Almighty God, then an interesting problem would arise: Ohio’s state constitution would itself be unconstitutional.

The preamble to Ohio’s state constitution begins: “We, the people of the State of Ohio, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom… ” Here the Ohio constitution reaffirms the view of our nation’s founders that our liberty derived ultimately from God, which is why the Declaration of Independence speaks of “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” and why the otherwise very liberal Justice Douglas acknowledged that “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” (It turns out that 47 of the 50 state constitutions invoke the name of Almighty God. The ACLU has lots of lawsuits ahead.)

Ohio was originally settled in the late 18th century under the law of the Northwest Ordinance, which stipulated that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Mixing “religion” and “schools” in the same sentence along with “encourage” is enough to give the average ACLU chapter a coronary, and yet there it is,
from the pen of many of the same people who wrote the Constitution and the First Amendment. The Ohio case is headed for appeal, perhaps even to the Supreme Court, which begins each day with the injunction, “God save this honorable Court.” The ACLU better plug its ears during that part.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.