After weeks of complaints about “In God We Trust” signs posted this year on school campuses, Palm Beach County public schools have decided to replace the signs with the state seal.
A new state law requires all Florida public schools this year to post the phrase “In God We Trust” in a “conspicuous place” on campus. The county’s schools complied by posting the wording in boldface paper printouts, usually in the school’s main office.
But after complaints from teachers who saw the signs as an affront to the principle of church-state separation, the school district decided that posting the state seal – which includes the phrase in small print – would be a less conspicuous way to comply with the rule.
The county school board voted Wednesday to approve the change.
The state seal consists of an image of a Native American woman scattering flowers beneath a palm tree while gazing at a distant steamboat. The image is encircled by a small rendering of the phrase “Great Seal of the State of Florida: In God We Trust.”
Some other counties, including Orange and St. Lucie, have already decided to use the state seal to comply with the requirement. The phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted as the state’s official motto in 2006.
Board member Karen Brill said she recommended the change after teachers told her St. Lucie County public schools had decided to use the seal instead of text of the state motto, and they asked that Palm Beach County do the same.
“They felt it was inappropriate to have ‘In God We Trust’ on the school,” she said. “The teachers were really upset about it.”
Posting an image of the state seal rather than just the state motto would likely be seen as less overtly religious, Brill added.
“I just don’t think anyone’s offended when they see a state seal,” she said.
The requirement to post the phrase in schools was passed after the Parkland school shooting in February. The bill sponsor, a Jacksonville Democrat who runs her own ministry, said that making reference to a deity was more important than ever in the state’s schools.
"He is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is not black or white," Rep. Kim Daniels said in February, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "He is the light, and our schools need light in them like never before."
Florida is not the only state to require the phrase be posted in schools. Since last year, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee have passed similar requirements, and some other states require or allow similar religious phrases to be posted in schools.
The role of religion in public schools in a centuries-old legal debate.
While public schools are barred by the First Amendment to the Constitution from endorsing religions, federal courts have issued conflicting rulings in recent decades about whether particular religious symbols are permitted on school grounds or other government buildings.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether posting the phrase “In God We Trust” on school grounds is legally permissible, according to the Freedom Forum Institute.
But courts have ruled that some simple references to “God” are merely ceremonial and do not amount to religious endorsements.
In 2010, for instance, a federal appeals court ruled that teachers leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the phrase “one nation under God,” did not violate the First Amendment.
In 2014, a separate federal appeals court ruled that the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on American currency was not a constitutional violation either.