Three Mississippi politicians are using criticism from atheist groups as part of their campaigns for statewide office.
The criticism has to do with Mississippi’s new standard license plate that says “In God We Trust” on it. The phrase is included in the off-center state seal in the background.
As it stands, if you want to avoid promoting God on your car, it’ll cost you money to buy an alternative. It’s like a tax on non-Christian residents. It’s not like you can stick a piece of tape over the phrase either — covering up any portion of the plate is a misdemeanor that comes with a fine. In other words, there’s now a tax on non-Christian residents; either you get the state’s default license plate or you have to pay them for a different one.
That’s why groups like the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have called on state officials to offer a free alternative to that default plate.
AU also said in letter sent to Department of Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson and Attorney General Jim Hood that the plate “violates multiple constitutional provisions and statutes,” including ones in both the U.S. and Mississippi constitutions.
No lawsuit has been filed. Yet.
But three people are using this controversy to jumpstart their campaigns.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is running for governor, and in a new ad, he acts like the atheists pose an existential threat to citizens.
Mississippi has a brand new license plate. But the out-of-state liberals hate it. It’s because of these four words: “In God We Trust.” The liberals from California and Washington are threatening to take Mississippi to court, just because of this license plate… I know Mississippi’s values are Mississippi’s strength. Our next governor must defend our values every single day.
Maybe Mississippi Republicans don’t understand this, but if defending your state’s “values” involves trashing the Constitution, you’re choosing the wrong politician.
That line about “out-of-state liberals” isn’t accurate either, according to David A. Niose, the Legal Director of the American Humanist Association. He said in an email:
The claim that opposition to the plates comes from outsiders is simply not true. The American Humanist Association got involved in the issue only because numerous citizens of Mississippi contacted us about it. It’s a shame that some candidates apparently have so little to offer voters that they feel compelled to not only politicize the license plates, but to do so dishonestly by claiming that only outsiders are objecting to them.
Treasurer Lynn Fitch, running for attorney general, is also piggybacking on the state’s ignorance of the law. In a fundraising letter, she highlighted her role in being one of the four people who voted to put the religious phrase on the license plates:
“In Mississippi, we trust God. We put it in our state seal,” Fitch, who is running for attorney general this year, wrote in a May 23 fundraising letter that voters in the Jackson metro area received. “I voted to put that seal on our car tags. Because I did, atheist activists are threatening to sue Mississippi.”
Fitch continued: “I wish I could say this is the first time that liberal outsiders have tried to tell us in Mississippi that they know better than we do. But, it’s not. We pass bill after bill on issues that matter to Mississippians, like life and religious liberty, and they swoop in and take us to court to tell us our values just aren’t right. As your attorney general, I will fight to protect our laws and to defend the will of our people.”
Again, they’re not outsiders.
It’s genuinely messed up that a wannabe attorney general is bragging about how she voted to violate the law and got criticized for it. The top law enforcement official in the state ought to be celebrating those watchdogs, not promising to keep them in business. She should be fighting for church/state separation, not against it.
Also: Those “liberal outsiders” do know better.
Her GOP primary opponent Mark Baker is playing a similar card:
Baker first mentioned the controversy on June 5, listing among his top concerns in a fundraising email: “Fight to keep ‘In God We Trust’ on our state license plates and in our state seal.”
Sarah Henry, spokesperson for the American Humanist Association, issued this statement in response to these campaigns:
It’s disappointing to see anyone campaign on discrimination against atheists and other non-Christian residents of Mississippi. The state is forcing its own residents to publicly proclaim an allegiance to God or pay an additional, higher fee. The American Humanist Association is asking the governor’s office to respect the free speech of all Mississippians by providing a state-issued license plate that does not make a theistic claim at no additional charge. We warned the office in May 2018, when this policy was announced, and we’re continuing to monitor this violation of Mississippi drivers’ constitutional rights.
Ultimately, the candidates are all racing to uphold Mississippi’s reputation as the most backwards state in the country — a place where Christianity overrides the Constitution and where neutrality is a dirty word. This religious motto has no business being on license plates. A more honest politician would admit that.
Maybe one day Republican voters will get to choose one of those. It just won’t happen in this statewide election.
(Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)