Are “In God We Trust” posters in schools really a problem?

“Civil rights advocates are ringing alarm bells about officials distributing ‘In God We Trust’ posters in Texas schools after a state law took effect requiring public campuses to display any donated items bearing that phrase,” the Guardian reported on Sunday, August 21, 2022 (read story here).

On paper, it looks like a disturbing state-sponsored flouting of First Amendment religious freedom. But how alarming, exactly, is it? I mean, really?

It will bother the tiny number of parents who are atheists and don’t want their children exposed to a belief in God. Their kids are going to be exposed anyway the minute they step into society, which usually happens at kindergarten, if not sooner. “In God We Trust” is everywhere in our society from $1 bills to the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance that public school students recite beginning in kindergarten, so these posters don’t foist anything on Texas schoolkids they’re not going to see and hear anyway.

A spokeswoman for a group called “Jews For Racial & Economic Justice” told the Guardian, “Alone, they’re a basic violation of the separation of church and state. But in the broader context, it’s hard not to see them as part of the larger Christian nationalist project.”

That’s probably true; almost nothing Republicans do these days is innocent, and they wouldn’t go to this trouble if it wasn’t part of a larger effort to wage a “culture war” that includes tearing down the wall of separation between church and state. But do grade-schoolers know about this, or does it all fly over their heads; and will an “In God We Trust” poster in their school by itself steer them to a particular religion or political point of view? I really doubt it.

Nor are the posters especially pernicious on their face. The term “God” doesn’t exclude Jews, Muslims, or any other religious group. It’s a broad enough term to embrace all religions. The only people left out of “We” are atheists and agnostics. That’s a problem of principle in itself, but not a practical problem that will tear our social fabric apart. The poster doesn’t force kids to believe in God, it only suggests they do, without pushing them toward any particular religious group or set of beliefs.

So, on paper, it’s messing with the First Amendment; but in a way non-believers, and certainly believers, can live with. You have to pick your fights, and fight for things that truly matter involving rights you can’t afford to give up.

The fight that civil libertarians should pick here is pushing back — with all their strength — against the disturbing tactic being adopted by Republicans in Texas, and copied by Republicans in other states, of disguising state action as citizen activity in order to put state policies beyond the reach of judicial review.

Texas GOP legislators did that when they passed a law authorizing citizen legal vigilantes to collect bounties from abortion providers. The Supreme Court, whatever it intended to do with Roe v. Wade, should’ve called that state action and ruled it subject to judicial review. Its refusal to do so is an egregious offense against our legal order, even more than its reversal of longstanding precedent by overturning Roe v. Wade, and demonstrates the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is willing to let conservative legislatures skirt around constitutional rights to achieve specific political ends.

I don’t have a problem per se with the Supreme Court revisiting long-established precedents; if it couldn’t do that we’d still be stuck with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1898 decision that sanctioned de jure segregation, and decisions like the one that allowed internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. That doesn’t mean I agree with the Court’s abortion decision, or that I’m endorsing other decisions that strike a majority of Americans as wrong, such as barring judicial intervention against non-racial gerrymandering. But these are decisions involving substance; when the Court begins screwing with the processes of law to undercut fundamental rights, I see that as a greater threat to our freedom and you should, too.

Here I’m specifically referring to  GOP governors, attorney generals, and legislators in states like Texas delegating the exercise of governmental power to private citizens in order to get away things that states can’t do themselves. That’s so offensive to our system of laws that no court should tolerate it. It’s akin to a state legalizing lynch mobs in order to avoid holding trials and deprive citizens of due process. When Texas passed that law, abortion was still a constitutional right, and the Texas law told private citizens they could collect $10,000 bounties in the state’s courts for violating a stranger’s exercise of that right.

The Texas poster law is in the same vein. The Republicans who run that state are trying to get around court decisions enforcing religious neutrality in public schools by delegating the job of distributing posters to private citizens, and ordering the schools to accept them. That’s no different from the state posting those posters in schools itself, and the courts should see it that way. That, not the posters themselves, is the real threat to our legal order and what the fight should be over.

Related story: A Texas school district is in apparent violation of the law for refusing to accept posters printed in Arabic or with rainbow colors that comply with all statutory requirements. See story here.

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