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Jewish World Review May 5, 2000 /30 Nissan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Stamping out religion in the name of preserving religious liberty -- THE 6TH U.S. CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS has ordered Ohio to strike its motto, "With G-d, all things are possible." The court has ruled that since the words come from the Christian Bible, the Buckeye State was practicing impermissible pro-Christian proselytism.

The opinion offers a tasty example of what happens when judges decide to stamp out religion in the name of preserving religious liberty. It also illustrates the absurd lengths to which American jurisprudes have gone to demonize all practiced faiths.

Judge Avern Cohn identified the chief villain in this case by taking readers on a hilarious tour of Supreme Court pronouncements about public displays of religion. Until recently, our highest court adopted a common-sense view of the First Amendment: The government neither could set up a church nor tear one down. It couldn't dole out special benefits or punishments to the faithful or faithless.

Modern jurists couldn't stand the clarity of that position, so they began to trowel on new layers of "nuance" and "explication." As a result, present-day law is virtually incomprehensible.

According to the high court, the Constitution permits Congress to open each session with a prayer, but it doesn't grant similar permission to public schools, city councils or boards of education.

Why? Because justices have concluded that politicians have offered up heavenly entreaties for 200 years, which means the prayers no longer mean anything. This is another way of saying that on matters of religion, politicians are hypocrites.

Justices have engaged in similar gymnastics in upholding the motto "In G-d We Trust" and the phrase "one nation under G-d" in the Pledge of Allegiance, while throwing out other less direct references to the Prime Mover.

The courts have declared, for instance, that the acceptable mottoes embody "ceremonial deism" -- another way of saying that nobody takes them seriously.

Judges also have created a "reasonable man" or "reasonable observer" test: If a hypothetical reasonable man does not think a motto unduly compels adherence to Christianity (or any other religion), the expression is OK.

Under this theory, a Reasonable Man would know that the dollar bill and the Pledge of Allegiance were not vehicles of religious coercion. He also would appreciate the virtues, if not the irony, of seeking divine guidance for chambers filled with duly elected lawmakers.

Not surprisingly, then, the fate of the Ohio motto hinges on the court's definition of what a "reasonable man" would think. But in this case, the court defines such a person as someone who could stump Regis Philbin and Billy Graham.

The theoretical Average Joe would know, for instance, that the Ohio motto first was suggested in the late 1950s by a 12-year-old Cincinnati student in response to a statewide contest to pick a state motto.

This Reasonable Person would know that the observation came from the 19th Chapter of Matthew, where Jesus addressed a rich man eager to know how to get to heaven. The exegete further would know that Jesus considered the renunciation of wealth a necessary condition for achieving eternal life and that Christ later in the chapter launched into a preliminary discussion of salvation through grace.

This same layman would know that the Christian Bible reports similar statements in Mark 10:27 and Luke 18:27. He would interpret the motto not as a bland statement of faith in a transcendent Creator, but as an essential point of Christian doctrine.

Yet this also is where the sensible observer's expertise would end. For some reason, this court's sensible onlooker would know bupkus about the dozens of other world religions that attribute omnipotence to the Creator and venerate Him as the source of all possibility and reality. As Judge David Nelson notes in a dissent on the case, the Reasonable Man similarly would not know that the state motto appears in the same chapter of the Ohio Code as the state wildflower, bird, animal, coat of arms, tree, gemstone, invertebrate fossil, beverage and song. Nor would Mr. Reasonable realize that "In G-d We Trust" echoes the refrain of Psalms 56:11.

Perhaps aware of the idiocies and inconsistencies embedded in its opinion, the court asserted defensively, "This decision should not be viewed as hostile to religion, but rather, an effort to assure government neutrality in relation to religion." But in fact, it is exuberantly hostile to all religion -- perhaps because jurisprudes are as skittish these days about moral absolutes as the Clinton Justice Department.

Our legal system was designed to encourage moral clarity, sound reasoning and common sense. This time around, however, the appeals court did something else entirely. It proved that in G-d, all things truly are possible -- and that even blockheads may become federal judges.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate