There's nothing wrong with stickers or decals featuring the phrase "In God We Trust" on police vehicles, the Lonestar state's top cop assured lawmakers.
Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the matter on Nov. 4 with a letter to two Republican state senators who asked if police departments were inviting legal trouble by including the phrase on patrol cars. Pointing to precedent in a series of court cases, Paxton noted challenges to "In God We Trust" on money, police vehicles and goverment property haven't been successful.
"Displaying ‘In God We Trust’ on police vehicles is a passive use of a motto steeped in our nation’s history that does not coerce Citizen approval or participation,” Paxton wrote to the state senators. “A law enforcement department’s decision to display the national motto on its vehicles is consistent with that history. Thus, a court is likely to conclude that a law enforcement department’s display of ‘In God We Trust’ on its patrol vehicles is permissible under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
Slapping the phrase on police vehicles has become a contentious issue in recent months, with more than 60 police departments -- most of them in the south and midwest -- approving decals or stickers on patrol cars, according to the National Constitution Center, a Philadelphia-based non-profit dedicated to civic education.
In each case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged the use of the phrase on government-owned vehicles. The Wisconsin-based group advocates for separation of church and state in all matters, and has said the phrase amounts to "phony pandering" to the nation's religious demographic, especially in socially conservative states. "In God We Trust" became the national motto in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law, a move that also made the phrase mandatory on American currency.
“The attorney general’s opinion is a fait accompli. We all know what the attorney general will rule: Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as a motto, therefore it’s not only fine, it’s patriotic for the Childress Police department to place it on its vehicles,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation said in an earlier statement challenging another Texas police department's decision to adopt the motto. “Piety or faith are not and should not be synonymous with patriotism. But godliness has been equated with good citizenship since this unconstitutional and misguided law passed in 1956.”
Paxton's letter is an informal opinion, and not a formal legal ruling, but it could be a barometer for legal challenges on behalf of atheist groups, the Southeast Texas Record reported.
“The Attorney General’s opinion doesn’t preclude further challenges, but if there is some sort of litigation, his opinion will carry some weight with the court," Jim Walsh, former managing editor at the Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest, told the Texas newspaper. "But it doesn’t preclude somebody from filing a lawsuit and trying to find out what a judge thinks about it.”
Brian Duke, sheriff of Henderson County, Tennessee, told the New York Times the phrase has the potential to ease relationships between the public and the police.
“With the dark cloud that law enforcement has been under recently, I think that we need to have a human persona on law enforcement,” Duke said. “It gave us an opportunity to put something on our cars that said: ‘We are you. We’re not the big, bad police.’ ”