Friday, December 9, 2022
Dec. 9, 2022

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Crisp: Texas law bad for church, state

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The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 797 more than a year ago, but school districts and citizens were preoccupied with the pandemic. No one paid much attention to S.B. 797’s requirement that all public schools in Texas — from first grade through university — post our national motto: In God We Trust.

As students return to in-class learning this fall, in some schools they’re finding prominently displayed posters bearing the motto centered above a United States flag and a Texas flag.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. “In God We Trust” has been inscribed on our currency since the Civil War, but not without controversy. In fact, in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt objected strenuously to the motto’s inscription on our coinage, calling it “dangerously close to sacrilege.”

Posting the motto in every school in Texas generates more questions than solutions. Atheists or agnostics might wonder to whom the “We” in “In God We Trust” refers. So might Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, who will clearly understand that the “God” in “In God We Trust” is the Christian god. And even Jews, who worship, more or less, the same god, might object to the assertive, proselytizing nature of the motto. That’s not something Jews do.

Other citizens, religious and secular, wonder how the public display of a religious sentiment in a public school doesn’t violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment — whatever that means — of any religion by government.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, anticipated this objection. Hughes crafted S.B. 797 requiring that signage bearing the motto be donated by individuals or purchased with donations, thus removing responsibility from the state.

So we can expect “In God We Trust” posters to proliferate in Texas schools — and probably elsewhere in the nation. And challenges to S.B. 797 are unlikely to survive in the courts.

The courts have generally held that the motto doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that acts of “ceremonial deism” are permitted “chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” In other words, “In God We Trust” is constitutional because its religious content has been drained out of it through overuse.

Here’s another problem with the motto: Some Christians would argue that it’s not very Christian. They might note that Jesus wasn’t fond of assertive religious sanctimony, and he urged his followers not to be like the “hypocrites,” who love to pray in public so that they can “be seen of men.”

Trusting God takes place in the heart, they might say, and it’s presumptuous to assert trust on behalf of an entire nation, which, if truth be told, has never done that good a job of relying on God, except ceremonially.

And S.B. 797 is both assertive and coercive. A draft version of the bill says that public institutions “may” post the motto in every building. The final version says “must.”

The enforced posting of the national motto isn’t good for the state or for religion. Despite its obvious judicial dodge, any reasonable observer — and impressionable child — will understand that S.B. 797 represents an endorsement of a version of Christianity. And Christianity is not well served by the enforced rote repetition of dubious Christian sentiments.

“In God We Trust” was chosen unanimously by Congress as the national motto in 1956, largely as an assertion of our righteousness in comparison with the godlessness of communism.

But I prefer the unofficial motto that “In God We Trust” replaced. “E Pluribus Unum” means “Out of Many, One.” The Latin gives it a certain dignity, as well as equal standing in relation to the many languages spoken in our country.

If we’re looking for a national idea we can all share, “In God We Trust” is, at best, fraught with problems. But “E Pluribus Unum” would be a fine sentiment to post in every classroom: It’s an inherently American aspiration that hopes to unite, rather than divide.

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