Fight over 'In God We Trust' displays in Texas schools may hinge on First Amendment rights

A plaque with the motto "In God We Trust" is featured in this image.Wikimedia Commons/Architect of the Capitol

A new Texas law that requires all public schools statewide to display the national motto "In God We Trust" is facing a challenge over its rejection of signs with the phrase written in Arabic and one with a rainbow background.

In early August, the Carroll Independent School District, located in Southlake about 15 miles west of Dallas, received several signs with the national motto from Patriot Mobile, a local Christian-based wireless provider. Patriot Mobile has been linked to an effort to elect more conservatives to school board seats in Texas.

After criticizing the donations as "blatant intrusion of religion in what should be a secular public institution," the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition (SARC), a self-described "coalition of current and former Carroll students demanding systemic, anti-racist change," designed a number of alternative versions of the motto to be displayed.

An image of the various designs was shared on Twitter.

In a statement posted on Instagram, the group said: "By putting signs around the school with religious messaging, they are forcing religion onto what should be a secular environment. The school is also making several students uncomfortable with what the words imply."

The group also shared a video of Southlake parent Sravan Krishna presenting posters designed by SARC to "expose the hypocrisy" of SB 797, the law that took effect in June which requires schools to display the national motto.

In the video, Krishna is seen offering several signs displaying the motto, including one with a rainbow background and another with the motto written in Arabic.

Board President Cameron Bryan responded to the request by pointing out that the statute does not "contemplate requiring the district to display more than one copy at a time."

"It doesn't say you have to stop at one," Krishna responded. "That is your decision to stop at one, right? Why is more God not good?"

Neither Bryan nor SARC responded to a request for comment from The Christian Post. A request for comment by the American Civil Liberties Union was also not returned.

While SB 797 does not make reference to any limit on the displays, First Liberty Institute attorney Keisha Russell told CP that while schools are required to display the motto if one is donated, there is also a First Amendment issue at play.

"In this case, it would be considered government speech, and the government is allowed to decide what messages it wants to convey," said Russell. "I don't see anything that says, 'These are private people who want to express a certain message and the government isn't allowing anyone to do that."

Russell pointed to a pair of United States Supreme Court decisions that underscored the government's right to decide which messages it chooses to convey, including the 2015 case Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state of Texas could deny a specialty license plate to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans without violating the First Amendment.

"I think here the school district is still in a pretty good position to say, 'We want to express the message this way but not that way'," Russell added.

The debate over the "In God We Trust" messaging began in earnest after Patriot Mobile — which has a separate political action committee that has spent big money on helping to elect conservatives to school boards in several North Texas school districts — donated signage to Carroll ISD last month.

After the donation, Scott Coburn, Patriot Mobile's chief marketing officer, said during a school district meeting that a "full 15 percent" of the company's employees live in Southlake, according to ABC News' DFW affiliate WFAA.

"We live here," said Coburn. "Our kids attend school here."

Patriot Mobile also spent more than $200,000 in helping Andrew Yeager get elected to the Carroll ISD board, according to public campaign finance disclosures.