CINCINNATI -- Ohio's motto, "With God, all things are possible," was declared unconstitutional Tuesday by a federal appeals court that said the phrase amounts to a government endorsement of Christianity.
The 2-1 decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's ruling that permitted Ohio's use of the motto. The motto was taken from the New Testament, specifically Matthew 19:26, which quotes Jesus Christ.
"When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he was explaining to them what was needed of them to enter heaven and achieve salvation, a uniquely Christian thought not shared by Jews and Moslems," Circuit Judge Avern Cohn wrote for the three-judge panel.
In a dissent, Circuit Judge David Nelson said he found Ohio's motto no more troubling than the words "In God We Trust" on U.S. coins.
Ohio's motto was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which contended the phrase cannot be separated from its biblical context as part of a discussion of salvation.
The ACLU, representing the Rev. Matthew Peterson, a Presbyterian minister in suburban Cleveland, challenged all official uses of the motto, which was adopted in 1959 and has appeared for years on the Ohio secretary of state's stationery, on some state reports and on Ohio tax returns.
"This is may be the blandest statement about God that has ever been struck down," said Douglas Laycock, professor of law at the University of Texas.
According to Cohn, two federal appeals courts since 1970 have ruled that "In God We Trust" is permissible and does not amount to a government sponsorship or endorsement of religion.
Cohn said the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided a direct challenge to either the inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance or "In God We Trust," which he said is adapted from the Book of Psalms.
The state said it will challenge the ruling. It could appeal to the full, 13-judge appellate court or the Supreme Court.
"The state does not use the motto to promote or advance any single set of religious beliefs," Gov. Bob Taft said.
In its ruling, the appeals court said U.S. District Judge James Graham erred in 1998 when he allowed Ohio to use the motto as long as it did not cite the biblical origin of the words.
Around the country, there have been numerous court challenges of religious displays on government property and prayer in school.
In 1999, city officials in Republic, Mo., agreed to remove the Christian fish symbol from the city seal after the ACLU sued.
Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair for years tried unsuccessfully to remove "In God We Trust" from currency and stop jurors from saying "so help me God."
But Laycock said "there have not been high-profile cases of this sort" involving a slogan. "For the most part, courts haven't been much interested in these cases and have kind of brushed aside challenges," he said.