By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune, Aug. 31, 2022
When news broke two weeks ago that Texas had a new law on the books requiring public schools to display donated “In God We Trust” signs, protesters quickly schemed about how to subvert the law’s intent.
In Florida, longtime church and state separation advocate Chaz Stevens immediately began work on a plan. He wanted his protest to follow the letter of the law, but flip it in a way that might spark opposition from the law’s supporters, like having the nation’s motto written in Arabic. Stevens is well aware he’s relying on Islamophobia to provoke conservatives but he’s also hoping teachers can use his signs to discuss faiths other than the nation’s dominant religion in public schools.
“What better place for a teachable moment?” he said.
But in the wake of Stevens’ protest, a Texas lawmaker and conservative school district are now running interference on the subversive backlash from Stevens and other protesters.
A year ago, Senate Bill 797, authored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, went into effect, mandating schools to display signs bearing the national motto in a “conspicuous place” if donated or purchased for the purpose of display. The law initially resulted in donations of “In God We Trust” posters to public schools from the Christian cellphone company Patriot Mobile.
When others learned of the donated signs, activists created displays of the motto both in Arabic and in rainbow lettering signifying support of the LGBTQ community. News of their plans quickly hit social media and Hughes, a lawyer, stepped in, firing off a letter to the Texas Education Agency. In it, he argued that any donated “In God We Trust” sign must be in English even though that law does not specify what language the signs must use.
“In both the United States Code and the Texas Education Code, the motto is set out in quotation marks and is presented in English. Accordingly, the statutory prescription that the motto be displayed as it appears in the statute, and with no other ‘words, images, or other information,’ limits the legally mandated display of the motto to only posters or framed copies presented in English,” Hughes wrote.
Advocates for the separation of church and state said that the law is an effort to inject Christianity into secular, public education. Additionally, other non-Christian religious groups have criticized the law as forced indoctrination.
For nearly a year, the “In God We Trust” sign law fell off the public’s radar. Then, a few weeks ago, Patriot Mobile donated signs bearing the motto to every school in the Carroll Independent School District. The school board of the affluent, largely white Dallas-Fort Worth suburb accepted the posters from the conservative company during a meeting on Aug. 16.
Other residents attempted to donate signs written in Arabic and in rainbow colors, and Carroll ISD declined those donations on Monday, saying that Patriot Mobile donated enough signs for the district.
Carroll ISD School Board President Cam Bryan said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that the decision to decline the less-traditional “In God We Trust” signs was based on Hughes’ letter, which zeroes in the singular tense in the law wording when referring to a “durable poster or framed copy.”
Neither the TEA nor Hughes responded to the Tribune’s request for comment.
William White, the director of operations for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Houston, said the law should be amended such that schools have the choice to display the sign or not.
“The First Amendment was never meant to completely exclude references to God or religious practices from government settings. That’s why public meetings often begin with prayer, elected officials frequently take their oath of office on a holy text, public employees wear visible signs of their faith on the job, and why God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance, on every U.S. coin and dollar, and on the walls of various public buildings and monuments,” White said in a statement to the Tribune.
But students of all faith, and no faith, should be able to attend public school without experiencing government indoctrination or being used as “political footballs in our society’s culture wars,” White added.
White also expressed concern with the use of Arabic on the protest sign. He said using Islam as an act of protest could led to unforeseen backlash against Muslim students in Texas.
Muslims are the fifth-largest religious group in the state. Texas is home to the largest population of Muslims in the country.
Carisa Lopez, a senior political director with the Texas Freedom Network, a religious freedom advocacy group, said that the law inserts unwanted government control into schools in an effort to chip away at the separation of church and state.
“Our constitution guarantees the freedom from religion and the state of Texas shouldn’t be making any religious requirements of our public schools. It’s clear they know this crosses the line because they conveniently worded the law to find a loophole to make it happen,” Lopez said in a statement.
Amy Price, the director of development and communications of the Atheist Community of Austin, told the Tribune that the law reflects an effort to legislate Christianity into public education. Her organization’s intent is to set and uphold boundaries between secular institutions and faith, which the law aims to muddy, Price said.
“It sounds small and harmless, but it’s neither,” she said.
Disclosure: Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.