If you live in Mississippi and own a vehicle, you have to pay extra if you don’t want to endorse theism while on the road.
Hopefully, that’s about to change thanks to a lawsuit filed June 22nd by American Atheists and the Mississippi Humanist Association. These two groups are challenging the state of Mississippi over its “In God We Trust” standard license plate, citing the lack of secular alternative plates without fees. By charging residents for secular alternatives to the standard plate, Mississippi has, as one of my colleagues put it, imposed a “tax on driving while atheist.”
The complaint is straightforward: Mississippi standard license plates clearly display the state’s seal, which has the phrase “In God We trust” on it, an inherently religious proclamation. Unless a vehicle owner satisfies narrow eligibility requirements for a non-standard license plate (by being a member of the military or government, for instance) then they must use the standard plate that displays “In God We Trust” or pay a $32 annual fee for an alternative plate without the phrase. For some vehicles, such as RVs, trailers and motorcycles, there are no alternative tags, which means those vehicle owners have no choice but to display the phrase, whether they believe it or not. This amounts to compelled speech, and Mississippi should be required to offer an alternative plate without the state seal for no additional cost, an incredibly simple solution.
The precedent that license plates are subject to First Amendment speech protections was made clear in Wooley v. Maynard, a Supreme Court case in which George Maynard and his wife, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, sued the state of New Hampshire for preventing them from obscuring the phrase “Live Free or Die” on their license plate, a phrase which, Maynard argued, conflicted with his deeply held religious convictions.
Americans United previously explained the 1977 ruling in Wooley when we advised Mississippi officials that their standard license plate violates religious freedom. Essentially, the Wooley precedent says that states cannot coerce people into displaying political or religious messages in which they do not believe on license plates.
The Wooley precedent is not archaic, either. It was recently reaffirmed in the 2015 case Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., another license plate dispute. In the 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided that license plate designs were a form of government speech. But Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority and citing Wooley v. Maynard, clarified how license plates still involve individual free speech rights:
“Our determination that Texas’s specialty license plate designs are government speech does not mean that the designs do not also implicate the free speech rights of private persons. We have acknowledged that drivers who display a State’s selected license plate designs convey the messages communicated through those designs… [a]nd we have recognized that the First Amendment stringently limits a State’s authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees.”
In other words, state license plates directly involve the First Amendment rights of individuals. In the Mississippi case, drivers are being coerced into displaying “In God We Trust,” having to pay a fee if they wish not to display the message and potentially a $25 fine if they break the law and obscure it. Being directly compelled to display a message that one disagrees with is clearly in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections. It prevents people from expressing themselves as they choose.
An alternative license plate without additional fees would be an easy solution. The state could keep the “In God We Trust” plate for all who want it and provide a secular alternative for those who don’t. Yet Mississippi resisted that in 2019, when Americans United warned the state about the violation. They seem intent on resisting it now, too. If Mississippi had listened in 2019, it would have avoided legal action and nonreligious drivers in Mississippi wouldn’t have had to spend the last two years paying extra to avoid endorsing convictions they don’t share. It’s high time for them to be free from a tax on their own beliefs.
PHOTO CREDIT: A screenshot of a Mississippi's "In God We Trust" license plate from a 2019 campaign video for current Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R).