Mississippi's new license plates get rid of "In God We Trust"
The previous plates forced atheists to acknowledge God unless they paid for an alternative
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***Update*** (5/24/23): American Atheists says they are withdrawing their lawsuit now that the license plate design is changing.
“Mississippi officials did exactly what we wanted—and more. We had simply asked that they make a free alternative license plate available for nonreligious Mississippians. But they went the extra mile and completely removed ‘In God We Trust’ from the upcoming 2024 design,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Governor Reeves made the right decision and respected all Mississippians’ beliefs and rights with this new license plate. Mississippians will no longer be forced to act as billboards for the state’s preferred Christian message. This is a victory for free speech and religious freedom.”
“If you’d like to take a black marker to ‘In God We Trust’ and scribble it out, you may legally do so in the state of Mississippi,” said Blackwell. He encourages any driver who is pulled over, harassed, or faces discrimination as a result to report the incident to American Atheists. The civil rights organization is prepared to take legal action on behalf of constituents.
I would add that the statements appear to give Mississippi officials far more credit than they deserve, since their own earlier remarks suggested the design change never took the lawsuit into count. But a win is still a win.
Has Mississippi given up on adding “In God We Trust” to its license plates? And did atheists have anything to do with it?
Officials there won’t admit it, but the outcome certainly suggests it’s possible.
This all began back in May of 2019, when then-Governor Phil Bryant introduced the state’s new “default” license plate — the one that would automatically be given to anybody who needed one. It included the state seal emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.”
In case you can’t see that seal in the background, here’s what it looks like:
It wasn’t just that the seal had “In God We Trust” written front and center, now that seal was going to be stamped on new license plates.
That meant if you wanted to avoid promoting God by getting a different background on your license plate, it would cost you. In other words, getting a secular license plate was effectively a tax on non-Christian residents. You would think the state would make an alternative option available at no charge… but nope. This one, with the religious propaganda masquerading as the National Motto, was going to be the only cost-free choice.
Even worse: If you owned an RV, motorcycle, or trailer, you had to use the religious plates. If you purchased vanity plates (with your own chosen letters and/or numbers), the background had to be the “In God We Trust” design. Even some drivers who needed to display a “disabled” tag would have been forced to use the religious design.
That’s why, in June of 2021, American Atheists, the Mississippi Humanist Association, and three residents sued the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue Chris Graham. Their lawsuit even use the same (successful) argument offered by Catholic Social Services in the Fulton case decided by the Supreme Court, saying that they should not be subject to follow the state’s rules if those rules violated their sincerely held beliefs.
The lawsuit made clear that the atheists were not suing over the religious nature of the motto itself or the legality of the State Seal. (Both of those would have been dead-on-arrival arguments given the way federal courts have ruled in the past.) This was only about how Mississippi was forcing “nonreligious drivers to display the government’s preferred ideological, religious message on their vehicles or, if they refuse to do so, pay higher fees to legally drive their vehicles.”
“Every minute they spend on the streets of Mississippi, atheists are forced to act as a billboard for the state’s religious message,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists. “Some can avoid being a mouthpiece for the government by paying a penalty. For many others, even that isn’t possible. Atheists with a disability or a special category of vehicle are stuck proclaiming a belief in the Christian god. It’s an abuse of power and unconstitutional.”
“Wherever I use my trailer, I am forced to profess a religious idea that I do not believe,” said plaintiff Jason Alan Griggs. “Imagine a Christian having to drive around with ‘In No God We Trust’ or ‘In Allah We Trust.’”
“As a Mississippi resident with a permanent disability, I have no other option but to put ‘In God We Trust’ on my property. It’s most certainly not what I believe, but in Mississippi there is just no alternative,” said Sue Moss, a member of the Mississippi Humanist Association.
“For years, I had a personalized license plate message on the old blues guitar design. In 2019, when ‘In God We Trust’ became the new standard plate, I was forced to either give up my chosen message or display it alongside the Mississippi government’s religious statement. I shouldn’t have to make that choice. The government shouldn’t be able to decree that I display a message that goes against my beliefs,” said Sarah Worrel, American Atheists’ Mississippi Assistant State Director for Gulfport.
Two recent Supreme Court cases, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Tandon v. Newsom, bolster American Atheists’ claims. The Court ruled that where a law or policy includes a system of exemptions, a similar exemption must be provided for anyone with religious objections. Since Mississippi provides alternative plate designs to certain categories of individuals, atheists and other Mississippians who object to “In God We Trust” must receive equal treatment.
The lawsuit said the forced plates violated their First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise rights, and the atheists were asking the courts to stop the state from “charging additional or increased fees to Mississippi car owners who do not wish to endorse the state’s ideological message.”
It was a novel approach to a serious problem. Just because “In God We Trust” has been the nation’s motto for decades didn’t mean it was okay for politicians to slap the phrase everywhere they found space. Just because it’s the motto didn’t mean it wasn’t religious. Tradition didn’t make something right, and this religious motto was always a bad tradition.
The irony of this whole situation was that the state had an easy out: All they had to do was offer a God-free license plate to anyone who wanted it. Until 2019, the license plates bore the image of a guitar, a symbol representing Mississippi-born blues legend B.B. King. There was nothing wrong with that.
This past March, a federal judge agreed that the atheists “have articulated a violation of their First Amendment free speech rights. They cannot be compelled to display ‘In God We Trust’ on their license plate.” The question was what the proper remedy should be. Could they just cover up the phrase on their license plates? Yes, said the judge, and there was precedent for doing it… but unless the atheists were “prosecuted for non-compliance” for doing just that, there wasn’t much he could do since they hadn’t suffered any legal injury.
The case was dismissed. In early April, the atheists announced their plan to appeal the decision.
But here’s the stunning development in the story: All of this may now be moot.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves named the winner of a license plate design contest that was first announced last November. These new default license plates would go into circulation beginning in January of 2024. After sifting through 400 submissions, the winning entry, created by Leah Frances Eaton, was this one:
That would be a magnolia (the state flower) on a plain white background. No “In God We Trust” anywhere in sight.
Reporter Ashton Pittman of the Mississippi Free Press asked state officials if the new design was chosen in response to the atheists’ lawsuit or if they had any comment on the lack of “In God We Trust” in the new design… and they all seemed oblivious to the controversy:
Asked for comment from the governor’s office on the decision to choose a new tag without “In God We Trust” on it Tuesday, Gov. Reeves’ Communications Director Hunter Estes sent the following statement: “This was a statewide contest open to all Mississippians for submissions. We received hundreds of incredible designs that showcased the impressive talent of Mississippians. This design was the winner that was ultimately selected from those submissions.” The statement did not mention the absence of “In God We Trust.”
The Mississippi Free Press also contacted the Mississippi Department of Revenue on Tuesday to ask about the decision to choose a new tag without “In God We Trust” on it and whether the lawsuit had anything to do with it.
“I don’t think we have a reason why, that’s the design that was submitted,” department spokesperson Lexus Burns told the Mississippi Free Press. She said she would inquire further with officials in the department, but the department has not followed up as of press time Wednesday.
“I don’t think we have a reason why” is a perfect encapsulation of Mississippi Republican ideology.
I asked American Atheists how this new design would impact their lawsuit. Would they continue pursuing the case given that the problematic license plates will be going away in a matter of months?
Attorney Geoff Blackwell told me nothing will change on their end: “Our appeal is proceeding. Until our clients have these new plates in their hands, the state is still compelling their speech.”
I would still love to know if the pushback against the current plate played any role in the selection of the new one, but at least for now, there’s no public indication that’s the case.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)
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