A Sign Solution: Reasonable Reading Would Allow Democratic Dialogue

Under a new Texas law, the Highland Park ISD recently received a donation of posters with the national motto, “In God We Trust.” As an attorney and parent of children in HPISD, I believe that this law can be read reasonably to avoid a problem that the Carroll ISD recently faced. 

Section 1.004 of the Texas Education Code requires a public school to display, “in a conspicuous place,” “a durable poster or framed copy of the United States national motto, ‘In God We Trust,’” if private donors provide the poster, it “contain[s] a representation of the United States flag centered under the national motto and a representation of the state flag,” and does “not depict any words, images or other information other than the representations … about the motto and the two flags.”

The Carroll ISD recently received a set of such posters from a local donor. A father in the district then tried to donate another set. One had “In God We Trust” written in Arabic. The others were in English but decorated in rainbow colors. 

The school board turned him down, saying that the statute should be read to set a one-per-campus limit. The father argued that the law says nothing about a limit, and requires a district to accept “a” poster so long as it satisfies the law. 

Both sides have a point. It seems unreasonable to require a school district to put up dozens of posters. But at the same time, we accept statutes as the Legislature writes them, and the Southlake father is correct that this statute does not set a limit.

Also, if the law is read to set a one-per-campus limit, which poster? Imagine a poster that writes the motto in an unusual font, or one shaped like the crescent moon associated with the start of Ramadan. Yes, the statute limits the “other information” that a poster may have. But the motto still must be written in a font and a poster must have a shape. A district that chooses one such expression over another could be engaging in content discrimination that violates the First Amendment. 

Fortunately, there is another way to read this law that did not come up in Carroll. The statute sets no requirement for how long the poster must stay in the “conspicuous place.” With no express guidance, a district could fairly assume that the Legislature intended a reasonable display time. 

Then, posters such as those recently donated to HPISD could be displayed for a week or two, followed by rainbow-colored ones for a similar time. This approach balances the interests of those who want a “traditional” presentation of the motto with those of others who, within the bounds of this law, want to add variety to that presentation. 

This new law has sparked a statewide debate about the national motto and what it means. If read reasonably, it can encourage a constructive and democratic dialogue throughout the school year. 

David Coale is an attorney and frequent commentator on legal issues. He’s also a Highland Park ISD parent.

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