Last week the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio's state motto: With God, All Things Are Possible. The American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiff in the case, had alleged that the motto violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This, in a nation that declared its independence with an appeal to "nature's God" and that was founded upon the proposition that all men are created equal; a nation whose own national motto is "In God we Trust"; whose national Congress begins every legislative session with a prayer; whose Supreme Court begins each session with its own exhortation, "God save the United States and this honorable Court."
In an earlier time, the ACLU's lawsuit would have been laughed out of court. The Supreme Court itself noted in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson that "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." But in this case, it took the full Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, to reach the conclusion that would have been so self-evident to our nation's founders.
Just last year, a three-judge panel of the same court reversed the district court's denial of the ACLU's request for a permanent injunction barring the State of Ohio from inscribing the motto above its statehouse. The court held that the motto amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion because the particular phrasing was drawn from the Bible, and in particular from the New Testament. That's the same Bible upon which George W. Bush placed his hand earlier this year as he was sworn in as this nation's forty-third President, just as each of his predecessors had done. That's the same Bible used in courthouses all across this nation by witnesses who swear that their testimony will be "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God."
It is perhaps fitting that the ruling involved the motto of the State of Ohio, for it was there that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were first extended to new territory. Sitting at the headwaters of the mighty Ohio River, Ohio became in 1803 the first state admitted to statehood from the Northwest Territory, not as a colonial possession but as a full and equal partner in the union. Nearly twenty years earlier, the Continental Congress had assured that result, drafting a charter for government in the new territory that remains today one of the four organic laws of this nation. That famous charter, the Northwest Ordinance, contains the following provision: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
In the preamble to the Constitution of Ohio, the people of Ohio gratefully acknowledged Almighty God as the source of their freedom. Here in California, our state constitution's preamble likewise acknowledges our gratitude "to Almighty God for our freedom." Similar provisions are found in nearly every one of the 50 state constitutions. The preamble of the constitution of New Jersey, one of the thirteen original states, looks to Almighty God to bless the state's efforts at securing civil and religious liberty. Pennsylvania humbly invokes the guidance of Almighty God. And in their Constitution's preamble, the people of West Virginia reaffirm their faith in and constant reliance upon God, Divine Providence.
It might be argued that these state constitutional preambles were adopted before the Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as rendering the Establishment Clause applicable to the states, and that they therefore are not instructive of what the clause permits. But it was not just the state governments that took actions acknowledging the role of religion in our civic life. The federal government did, too. In Ohio, for example, the federal government negotiated the sale of 1.5 million acres of land to the Ohio Company in 1787 at the very time the constitutional convention was meeting. The sale included a provision reserving for religious purposes 1/36 of all land sold.
George Washington, the first president elected under the new constitution and the president who presided over the ratification of the First Amendment, made a prayer part of his first inaugural address: "[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act," he noted, "my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes."
The day after the First Amendment was proposed, Congress urged President Washington to proclaim "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God." President Washington promptly issued such a proclamation, and we still celebrate as a national holiday every November that day of thanksgiving. Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the phrase, "a wall of separation between church and state," which has become synonymous with the modern anti-religious establishment movement, signed legislation paying the salary for a Catholic missionary to Indian Tribes in the western territories.
With all this historical precedent, Ohio's acknowledgement of God in its state motto hardly seems to qualify as the kind of thing the founders sought to prohibit by the Establishment Clause. Indeed, given the near uniformity with which our forebears sought the assistance of Divine Providence in their efforts to secure the blessings of liberty across an entire continent, it would seem almost self-evident to say, as Ohio does, that with God, all things are possible.