Now Stevens wants to troll them.
The South Florida activist had raised more than $14,000 Thursday night to hand out “In God We Trust” signs in Texas public schools. The problem? The sentence is in Arabic.
“My focus,” Stevens said, “was how do I play Texas State by the rules?”
The Arabic text is meant to invoke Islam and some Christians’ unease with that faith, Stevens said. He hopes just one school will hang the poster – in his view, arguing for the uniform application of the controversial law to people of any religion or no religion.
But Stevens, a self-described “convinced atheist,” is also willing to try to turn defeat into victory. If a school rejects his poster, he said, he plans to take legal action and use the lawsuit to challenge the law itself.
stevens waterfall, previously reported in the Dallas Morning News, joins a history of challenges to the national currency that the courts have consistently dismissed. It also adds fuel to a political storm that in recent years has turned schools in Republican-run states into culture war battlegrounds. Fights erupt over banning books, teaching about race and gender, and religious practice in schools as politicians clash over what it means to be an American and who decides.
Florida law made it easier to ban school books. Then a man challenged the Bible.
Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes (right), who sponsored the sign law, said Stevens’ Arabic posters did not meet the requirements of the law and would not have to be displayed in schools. He underlined the quotation marks around the phrase “In God We Trust” to suggest that a school need only hang a donated sign with those words in English.
“That’s all they’re required to do,” Hughes said. “But they are free to post other signs in as many languages as they want.”
The law, which took effect last year, requires public schools to post “in a conspicuous place in each school building” a sign with the national motto if the poster was donated or purchased with private donations. The sign must also include the American flag and the flag of Texas, and it “cannot depict” any other words or images. The law does not explicitly state that the national motto must be in English.
Status, Hughes said, is about “coming together as Americans.”
“The Declaration of Independence said our rights come from our creator,” he said. “And so the idea of acknowledging God is nothing new in American life.”
Several Texas school districts have already hung signs with the national motto, local media reported. The Yellow Rose of Texas Republican Women, a group that promotes conservative values, said this month it donated several posters to the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, about 25 miles northwest of Houston.
“Each visit was accompanied by smiles from staff and ‘thank you,'” the organization wrote. “It’s been such a blessing!”
“In God We Trust” officially became the nation’s motto in 1956, as declared by a congressional resolution, but the phrase has been used since the nation’s inception and has appeared on U.S. currency since the 1860s.
Many states allow or require public schools to post signs there. At least nine states besides Texas require schools to display the motto, and at least eight other states allow it, according to the States Education Commission, which tracks education policy. Some states specify that their policy applies only to signs that are given.
The courts have always ruled that the national motto’s reference to God is constitutional. In 1970, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the phrase did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it “has nothing to do with the establishment of religion” and is more about patriotism. Several other courts have since ruled along the same lines.
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The direction of court opinions on this issue is unlikely to change now, after former President Donald Trump made federal circuit courts more conservative, said University of Houston political science professor Jennifer Clark. .
Texas lawmakers could amend the law to specify that the national motto must be in English, said Steven Collis, director of the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center at the University of Texas at Austin. But he said the change could lead to litigation alleging that requiring the word “God” and not allowing “Allah” is discrimination against Islam.
“I don’t know if it would win out, but it seems like a coming argument,” Collis said. “And we’ll see if any courts bite into that.”
The larger cultural issue, Collis said, is that how people view signs with the national motto depends on whether they view public schools as neutral or hostile to religion.
“Does having the national motto take schools that have become far too secular and at least remind people that religion exists and is important to many people in our country?” he said. “Or is he going too far and pushing religion on people?”
For Stevens, pranking conservatives is a part-time hobby. His main job is to run a business that connects people with mental illness with service dogs.
Between these works, Stevens plans to send 300 to 500 posters in Arabic to schools in Texas. He intends to start with the most liberal districts he can find — determined by coronavirus vaccination rates — in hopes that a school there will accept his sign.
“I see this as a teachable moment – a time to teach inclusion,” he said. “And what better place than a college in Austin, Texas, or better yet, a college in the reddest part of Texas, to say, ‘Think of all those who are not of your tribe, that they have rights recognized by law. ”
Stevens is experienced in activism centered on the separation of church and state. Last spring, he petitioned dozens of Florida school districts to ban the Bible to draw attention to the growing challenges of books in schools. Before that, he pushed to open city committee meetings with a satanic invocation and erected a Festivus pole in the Florida Capitol to protest a Nativity scene.
With his cascade of Arabic signs, Stevens prepares for the likelihood of taking his fight to court.
“We’re going to wait for someone to say ‘No’ to me,” he said, “and then it comes.”