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There's a story going around the Internet of an activist donating posters to Texas schools with an Arabic translation of "In God We Trust". The claim is that Section 1.004 of the Texas Education Code (as updated by SB 797) mandates schools to display these posters, as they display 'the United States national motto, "In God We Trust"' (and also comply with the other requirements of the law).

I looked up the source of this being the national motto, and it's 36 U.S. Code § 302, which simply says:

“In God we trust” is the national motto.

The activist, and media reporting about it, seem very certain that this translation complies with the text of the law referred to above, but I can't find any further explanation about why. Is there any case law that corroborates the implicit claim that sentences in these kind of laws should be interpreted as referring to those sentences or a translation of those sentences into another language, instead of to simply those sentences as rendered in the law, in English?

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    Is the claim that displaying these posters would satisfy the requirements of the law, or that the law requires displaying these particular posters?
    – MJD
    Aug 24, 2022 at 18:44
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    @MJD The activist's inaccurate allegation is that the law requires the government to display the materials he donated. Aug 24, 2022 at 20:12
  • @MJD Both. As far as I understand, the law indeed mandates displaying any donated poster that fulfills the requirements. If that is incorrect though, it would be an interesting frame challenge answer. Aug 25, 2022 at 9:00
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – feetwet
    Aug 25, 2022 at 13:37

1 Answer 1

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Are Texas schools required to display posters with an Arabic translation of "In God We Trust"?

No. The activist (Chaz Stevens?) not only misses the legislative intent behind the motto, but it actually would be a violation of the Establishment Clause if a government displayed the flags he donated.

Is there any case law that corroborates the implicit claim that sentences in these kind of laws should be interpreted as referring to those sentences or a translation of those sentences into another language, instead of to simply those sentences as rendered in the law, in English?

In the particular case of "In God We Trust", the legislative intent is very specific about the language in which the motto is to be displayed. See Aronow v. U.S., 432 F.2d 242 n.3 (1970):

It will be of great spiritual and psychological value to our country to have a clearly designated national motto of inspirational quality in plain, popularly accepted English.

(emphasis added, citing House Report No. 1959. 1956 Cong. & Admin.News, p. 3720).

The legend in the activist's flags is in Arabic, and therefore not in plain, popularly accepted English.

The activist's purpose would violate the Establishment Clause because the legend in the activist's flag is less religion-neutral than the national motto. The transliteration of the legend at issue is nakhnu nathaq bi-(Al)lahi (I might be wrong in some vocals of the middle word), thereby making an unequivocal reference to Allah, the god of muslims. This might amount to governmental sponsorship of a religion, the Islam, insofar as in the English language, the word generally refers to God in Islam. Neutrality would require the legend to be nakhnu nathaq bi-(a)l-ilahi ( نحن نثق بالاه), since ilah means [a] god.

Although "God" in uppercase and used as proper noun is attached to judeo-christian theology, this religious bias is historically perceived as rather negligible when compared with the practicality of inspiring "patriotism" and akin values. See, for instance, Aronow at 243 and n.2. Similarly, Gaylord v. U.S., 74 F.3d 214, 216-217 (1996):

a reasonable observer, aware of the purpose, context, and history of the phrase "In God we trust," would not consider its use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an endorsement of religion.

Linguistically, the activist's legend even alters the emphasis of the national motto. By starting with nakhnu (which means "we"), the import of the legend is that "We, not others, are the ones who trust Allah". By contrast, the national of the motto connotes an emphasis on the noun "God", not on "we". To preserve the emphasis the national motto makes, the activist's legend should have been bi-(a)l-ilahi nathaq or something close thereto.

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    @IñakiViggers perhaps "Allah" is understood in English to refer to a specifically Islamic conception of God, but these materials aren't in English, so that isn't relevant. Back-translating the rest of the slogan--but leaving this one word out--is inappropriately provocative.
    – Tiercelet
    Aug 24, 2022 at 18:49
  • @Tiercelet "but these materials aren't in English, so that isn't relevant." It is utmost relevant because the legislative intent formulated in the cited House Report clearly is in the sense that national motto be, verbatim, "in plain, popular English". Your admission as to the "specifically Islamic conception of God" is widely shared and thus reflective of why the government's act of displaying the activist's slogan would amount to, and be widely perceived as, government's endorsement of Islam. Aug 24, 2022 at 20:05
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    The meaning of the word "Allah" in English is irrelevant, since the phrase is in Arabic, not in English. Translating the phrase as "in Allah we trust" is incorrect. By analogy, the Spanish phrase "estoy usando un sombrero negro" means "I'm wearing a black hat"; translating it as "I'm wearing a Negro sombrero" would be completely wrong. Aug 24, 2022 at 20:12
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    Not convinced the analysis is right. While the legislative history is informative, the statutory language is what controls and statutes have to be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with constitutional law and federal statutory law (including prohibition on discrimination in education based on national origin) even if it twists legislative intent. In particular, I don't see any establishment clause violation different from displaying the motto itself that has been deemed to come within the ceremonial deism exception to the establishment clause created by case law.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 24, 2022 at 22:16
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    @IñakiViggers As to your latest comment, doesn't the same analysis result in the conclusion that the phrase "in God we trust" refers specifically to the Christian concept of God, making that phrase just as much a violation of the Establishment Clause? There doesn't seem to be any significant difference between the English word "God" and the Arabic word transliterated as "Allah"; both words are used to refer to a variety of gods, but most commonly to one particular religion's conception of God. Aug 24, 2022 at 22:26

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