A group of individual atheists as well as two organizations have just filed a lawsuit against a Mississippi official over the state’s mandatory “In God We Trust” license plates.
Back in May of 2019, 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:
There’s “In God We Trust,” front and center, clearly visible in the new license plate.
If you wanted to avoid promoting God by getting a different background on your license plate, it would cost you… which meant, in a way, getting a secular license plate was 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 the only free choice.
Even worse: If you own an RV, motorcycle, or trailer, you have to use the religious plates. If you purchase vanity plates (with your own chosen letters and/or numbers), the background must be the “In God We Trust” design. Even some drivers who need to display a “disabled” tag have to use the religious design.
That’s why American Atheists, the Mississippi Humanist Association, and three residents are now suing the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue Chris Graham over the matter. In a lawsuit filed today, they even use the same (successful) argument offered by Catholic Social Services in the recent Fulton case decided by the Supreme Court, saying that they should not be subject to follow the state’s rules if it violates their sincerely held beliefs and there are exceptions to the general rule.
The lawsuit makes clear that the atheists are not suing over the religious nature of the motto itself, or the legality of the State Seal. This is only about how Mississippi is 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 says the forced plates violate their First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise rights, and the atheists are 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.”
Just because “In God We Trust” has been the motto for decades doesn’t mean it’s okay for politicians to slap the phrase everywhere they find space. Just because it’s the motto doesn’t mean it’s not religious. Tradition doesn’t make something right, and this religious motto has always been a bad tradition.
There will inevitably be conservative Christians whining about this lawsuit, but the atheists are basically using the same argument Catholics used to discriminate, only for good instead of evil. Critics of this legal argument need to explain why atheists can’t use it but Catholics can.
There’s a simple way out of this for the state, too, even if the atheists win: Just offer a God-free license plate. It shouldn’t be that complicated. 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. Take that template off the storage shelf and bring it back.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)