Juleanna Culilap

All Texas public schools must post donated posters featuring the national motto “In God We Trust” as a result of Senate Bill 797. For some, the poster reminds students of America’s history while for others, the poster drives focus away from educational needs.

“In God We Trust” brings controversy to schools

Wingspan Editor-in-Chiefs Athena Tseng and Caroline Caruso discuss the "In God We Trust" posters seen in Texas public schools.

January 19, 2023

Texas’ 88th legislative session is now underway with lawmakers meeting in Austin. Hundreds of bills will be written, with just dozens making it to the desk of Governor Greg Abbott. One of those passed in the 2021 session, Senate Bill 797, flew under the radar until late in 2022. The law requires Texas public schools to display donated “In God We Trust” posters. But there are many different views on Senate Bill 797 with Wingspan’s editorial board being split on whether or not “In God We Trust” posters should be found in public schools.

Waging war on “In God We Trust” 

Imagine if someone were to ask you to describe a dollar bill to them. Like most Americans, you would probably begin by mentioning how it was green, made of paper, and had a picture of George Washington on it. 

Oh, there’s also that distinguishable phrase on the very top of nearly every single U.S. bill and coin that has ever existed: “In God We Trust,” that’s there too. 

It isn’t often you see someone becoming outraged at the exchange of U.S. currency, yet when it comes to public school children, suddenly, the narrative shifts into arguing that it is an infringement on religious freedom. 

The 158-year-old, four-worded-phrase, which is uniquely American and has even become the adopted official motto of the United States, indeed, is now considered “a blatant intrusion on religion” after being introduced in Texas schools on posters via Senate bill 797.

Perhaps we take the posters down and modify the phrase to say “follow your own star,” “never compromise your principles,” or “to thine own self be true.” God forbid we offend someone by having the name God in schools. 

And yes, opponents to the phrase may be right in arguing there is a direct correlation between the slogan and religiosity. But where is the problem in reinstating the values on which our nation was founded: biblical principles? 

We have God embedded in our court of law (think taking an oath on a Bible or religious text) as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Texas Pledge. God is also in our principal documents:

“They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” reads the U.S. Declaration of Independence

The same Creator is in every state constitution, including Texas’s. 

Even founding father Benjamin Franklin went as far as to say that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Still- “Not everyone is Christian,” some argue. And they’re completely right. To this day, we continue to pride ourselves in being a nation of free thought and of diverse religious composition. 

Yet I think we need to revisit the origins of why we instated religious freedom. Perhaps our predominately Christian founding fathers chose the governing principles of liberty because it was first found in the Bible.

We see this as the captives are set free in Exodus. 

“Where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom,” as 2 Corinthians 3:17 notes.

The Apostle Paul even calls believers to “stand fast in the liberty in which Christ has set you free.”

Would it be so hard to infer that the pursuit of freedom that our Constitution so calls for was derived from the Protestant fathers’ voyage over to the New World, in which they hoped to worship God autonomously?

In God We Trust, because He has made a way for us to become a free, independent country. It makes sense. 

I’m not arguing that people bend the knee to the same God that I do, however, there must be an understanding that America will not change its core principles for a wave of people who get offended at the mention of a value that has existed since the day our nation was founded, and one that continues to be reflected on a daily basis. 

Because if we do fail to carry this on to the next generation, if schools aren’t educating their students on this same Liberty, we’ll lose it. 

American children must appreciate our nation if we want to remain the “United” States, and one of the freest countries in the world. What better way to do this than through a poster containing our national slogan? That is the true intent behind Senate Bill 797.

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Taking focus off educational needs

All public schools in Texas must post donated posters featuring the national motto “In God We Trust” in a conspicuous space as a result of Senate Bill 797.

Taking effect in September of 2021, SB 797 flew under the radar for nearly a year, causing what seemed to be no issues. 

But now, more than a year later, Bill 797 is driving focus away from real educational needs, such as low teacher wages and public school funding, while tip-toeing the line of one of America’s fundamental values: the separation of church and state

Looking back at U.S. history, the nation has debated the role of religion in public schools for decades.

When it comes to the separation of church and state, things are often viewed through two clauses of the First Amendment in regard to religion, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The provision that concerns public schools and other government funded entities is the Establishment Clause. 

To determine if there is an issue in the separation of church and state, there is a litmus test, commonly known as the Lemon Test. Created in 1971 by the Supreme Court via Lemon vs. Kurzman, the Lemon Test established three standards schools must follow: “They must do nothing to prohibit or promote a particular religion, they must be motivated by a secular purpose, and they must avoid excessive entanglement.”

So do the “In God We Trust” posters pass this test? 

In regard to prohibiting or promoting a particular religion: the posters do not prohibit nor do they necessarily promote a religion, so all good there.

But the posters are motivated by a secular purpose, so “In God We Trust” would appear to fail the Lemon Test. 

According to the the bills’ author: “The purpose of the law is to inform and remind students of the motto adopted by the United States Congress to assert the country’s collective trust in God”.

Putting the country’s trust in Gold doesn’t seem too secular.  Failing to pass the second criteria of the Lemon Test, it’s no wonder some people are sour about the “In God We Trust” posters.

However, the Supreme Court partially dismantled the Lemon Test this summer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, stating that school staff can continue to adhere to their faith even at school as long as it’s optional or not restricting students.

However, there is no “opt-out” option for SB 797 as anyone walking in the building can see the poster. Unlike the pledge of allegiance, where parents can avoid their students from reciting the pledge

The constitutionality of the poster is up in the air as it doesn’t seem to pass the Lemon Test, but beyond that, these simple pieces of paper are dividing thousands. Dozens of school board meetings have been dedicated to the matter; an overflow of news articles have been written, thousands of Facebook posts and Tweets from passionate parents and legislators have been posted, and thousands of dollars have been spent on the posters.

While hours upon hours have been spent discussing the bill, real urgent educational issues continue to run rampant. As of 2022, The Lone Star state ranks 43rd in educational attainment, 41st in school finance, and 34rd in education overall

From struggling with teacher retention to funding, Texas public school teachers get paid 21.5% less than other college graduates, affecting student’s education quality. With 70% of 8th graders not proficient in reading and 70% of 4th graders not proficient in math, there seems to be bigger issues within Texas’ education system than “to assert the country’s collective trust in God”.

So rather than spend time on a poster that doesn’t need to be there, the 88th session of the Texas Legislature needs to spend time on the unsolved issues in public education.

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