Here is an acceptable poster, students.

A Letter from Austin #26: The Great Texas Motto Insurgency

In English, Please

Let’s be clear. While Austin is the capital of Texas, and the Texas Legislature meets in our fair city every two years, most of the lawmakers who gather in January of every odd-numbered year are not from around here. We don’t want them, and we’re not going to claim them.

Occasionally something good happens when this august company of doctors, restaurant owners, and real estate agents from Orange and Mesquite and Van Horn assemble. In 1973, for example, the height of Texas legislative liberalism, Texas solons enacted both the consumer-friendly Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Texas Public Information Act (our version of the federal Freedom of Information Act, the most important government transparency law ever created). During the same general election that created this heavily Democratic crop of legislators, Texas voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that guaranteed women equal rights with men under the law, not long after the state also ratified the federal Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA never did gain acceptance in enough states to become part of the Constitution, and women have been fighting for their civil and financial rights ever since — but hey, Nixon-era Texans did their part.

More recent legislatures have been less illustrious. In the 87th legislative session, for example, our lawmakers passed a bill that outlawed abortion from the time of conception on, with no exceptions even for a pregnancy caused by rape or incest — a position supported by less than 25% of Texans, according to one poll. The Legislature also enacted a “permit-less carry” statute, enabling all Texans to carry guns openly. Many law enforcement organizations spoke out against the new law, but to no avail. Once it went into effect, Texans who would formerly have been denied a concealed carry permit, some 35,000 over the last five years, are now eligible to carry a weapon openly. It’s hard to know where to begin to unpack that one, but suffice it to say, handgun violence is now almost as prevalent in the Lone Star State as hot links and heat waves.

Those are two of the worst, and most consequential, acts of the 83rd Legislature. Along with them came the usual culture war klaxon calls, minor bills in the key of conformity designed to wave the flag for fire-breathing Fox News watchers back home. Senate Bill 797, for example, requires Texas school districts to display posters or framed copies of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, provided the posters or framed copies are donated to the district and also contain images of the U.S. and Texas flags. No one paid much attention to the new law — we’re Texans, after all — until a cell phone company called Patriot Mobile donated a slew of IN GOD WE TRUST posters to the Carroll Independent School District. Carroll ISD is a wealthy, largely white suburban school district in the general vicinity of Dallas that regularly produces good football teams and promising fraternity recruits. It dutifully accepted these “national motto” posters and proceeded to display them on various walls. A gratified Patriot Mobile, a Texas-based company that donates a portion of its customers’ phone bills to conservative, “Christian” causes, took a bow and offered by way of explanation a proclamation that its mission “is to passionately defend our God-given, Constitutional rights and freedoms, and to glorify God always.’

For all you constitutional scholars out there, it should be noted that the State of Texas is NOT, with SB 797, authorizing or directing school districts to proclaim “IN GOD WE TRUST.” By no means! Our state government is just saying that IF (wink, wink) someone WERE (nudge, nudge) to donate these God-glorifying posters, why THEN yes of course the district should have to display them. What kind of people would we be, after all, if our school districts were to refuse to display posters given them by random strangers?

But a funny thing happened on the way to the total breakdown of the long-hallowed separation of church and state. Some people thought maybe SB 797 was an attempt to shoehorn religion into the taxpayer-funded public school system on the back of clever legislative lawyerin’. And because the terms of the statute are pretty wide open, people began to donate their own versions of the motto motif to local districts. One set of donated posters says In God We Trust in rainbow lettering, a color scheme closely associated with the LGBTQ community. Another says In God We Trust in Arabic, the language of a portion of Texas’s large Muslim community (the largest in the country) and the language in which the Koran is written. Another donation had the requisite wording in Klingon, native tongue of a fictional race of exoplanetary aliens and a reliable indicator of marital status. It’s unclear how many of these donations have now been made across the state. A story in the Texas Tribune notes a smattering of donations, one to the Round Rock Independent School District from Moms for Liberty, a conservative nonprofit organization. It’s also hard to say how many such donations might have been accepted.

But to get back to our story: The Carroll Independent School District is not interested in displaying either the rainbow-colored or the Arabic signs. It has received enough English-language signs, it says, and just doesn’t need anymore.

Fair enough. But the statute doesn’t say that a school district need post only one such sign. It just says if someone wants to donate an IN GOD WE TRUST poster or framed copy of the motto, the school district must display it. One of the senators responsible for the new law, Senator Bryan Hughes of Mineola, a town notable chiefly for the number of vowels in its name, recently weighed in on the subject. Hughes wrote to the state’s education agency, attempting to make clear that by no means should a sign in another language or denoting support of a suspect social community be allowed in a Texas public school. “In both the United States Code and the Texas Education Code,” Hughes opines, “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.”

So there you have it. It’s a defensible interpretation of the statute, though it’s not the only interpretation. (Predictably, one Austin law firm has already sent cease and desist letters to several North Texas school districts, warning against discrimination directed against certain “unorthodox” IN GOD WE TRUST signs.) As Hughes sees it, in Texas, the land of liberty, certain signs must be displayed in our schools, as long as they’re in English, donated by the right people, and meet with the approval of our state legislature. None of this has anything to do with the real problems facing the state, of course: school shootings, disappearing rural hospitals, chronically high numbers of uninsured citizens, a pitiful foster care system, teacher shortages, power grid deficiencies, and illegal immigration, to name a few.

This little tempest is more or less meaningless. High school kids aren’t going to be hurt by a framed directive. Most likely, they won’t even notice it. While it might have been smarter for Senator Hughes and his ilk to direct Texas schools to accept donations of pint-sized Kevlar body armor to protect against future shooting sprees, the courts will enjoy parsing the language and intent of SB 797 and none of us will remember this particular kerfuffle five years from now. The only reason to pay attention at all is that this pointless statute is one more attempt by the most doctrinaire of our legislators, controlled by far-right donors, to remake Texas in their own strange version of state-sponsored Christianity.

Legislating belief is always a bad idea, as our Founding Fathers well knew. But in Texas, one rule of politics trumps all these days. When all else fails, grab a flag and pound on a Bible. And if that doesn’t work, pound it a little harder.

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Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com