God and the Ohio state constitution

I filled out my mail-in ballot this evening for the upcoming election. One of the referendums I had to vote on–the first on the list–was whether or not to hold a new state constitutional convention. That threw me for a loop, since I had heard absolutely nothing about a campaign to push for this. However, consulting some online oracles, I learned that this is routine: Since 1912, there’s been an article in the state constitution which requires that every twenty years, voters be asked whether or not they want to hold a new constitutional convention.

In the process of learning about the Ohio state constitution, I discovered that the preamble reads as follows:

We, the people of the State of Ohio, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, to secure its blessings and promote our common welfare, do establish this Constitution.

This is what the state bill of rights has to say about religion and government. Note the all-important “however” midway through, where Christian hegemony hastens to qualify the guarantees of freedom of conscience.

All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience. No person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any form of worship, against his consent; and no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious society; nor shall any interference with the rights of conscience be permitted. No religious test shall be required, as a qualification for office, nor shall any person be incompetent to be a witness on account of his religious belief; but nothing herein shall be construed to dispense with oaths and affirmations. Religion, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to pass suitable laws to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.

Note that even in the structure of the text itself, the assertion that religion is “essential to good government” is in tension with the assurance that people cannot be barred from public office or testifying in court “on account of [their] religious belief.” The tension resides in the “however” that the writer(s) used to transition from the “no religious test” clause to the “religion essential to good government” clause. Your religious beliefs are irrelevant to your qualifications for government… but don’t get us wrong: religion is indispensible for good government.

Americans are still trying to figure out how to navigate that tension.

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