Racial Equality

Miss. Officials Have No License To Force Drivers To Affirm Belief In God

  Rob Boston

In Mississippi, the state’s default vehicle license plate now contains the phrase “In God We Trust.”

What if you don’t believe in God or would rather not make a religious affirmation on your car, truck or SUV? You can apply for a specialty plate that doesn’t contain the phrase – but it costs $30 more. (And if you own a trailer you’re completely out of luck – state law bans specialty plates on those.) What about just covering up the phrase with, say, a piece of tape? That won’t work either; residents can be fined $25 if they do that.

If this doesn’t seem right to you, you’re not the only one. An Americans United attorney wrote to state officials yesterday and advised them that they are in violation of court precedent.

“Government must never pressure citizens to publicly display any religious belief,” wrote AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser to Mississippi Department of Revenue Commissioner Herb Frierson and Attorney General Jim Hood. “Yet Mississippi is forcing its many residents who do not believe in a god to choose between displaying a religious message that is contrary to their beliefs or paying a fine or fee.” (The American Humanist Association has also weighed in with its own letter.)

AU’s letter cites the leading case in this area, Wooley v. Maynard, from 1977. Some background: Since 1969, New Hampshire license plates have contained the state motto “Live Free or Die.” George Maynard and his wife, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, disagreed with that statement on political and religious grounds, so they covered it up. In 1974, George Maynard was charged with violating a state law that made it a crime to obscure the letters or numbers on a license plate. The law was interpreted to mean not just the identifying numbers and letters on the plate but also the motto.

Maynard ended up being cited for violating the law several times. Eventually, he filed a federal lawsuit charging that his rights were being violated. Two federal courts ruled in Maynard’s favor, but the governor of New Hampshire insisted on appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court accepted the case and on April 20, 1977, ruled 6-3 in Maynard’s favor.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Warren Burger observed, “New Hampshire’s statute in effect requires that appellees use their private property as a ‘mobile billboard’ for the State’s ideological message – or suffer a penalty, as Maynard already has. As a condition to driving an automobile – a virtual necessity for most Americans – the Maynards must display ‘Live Free or Die’ to hundreds of people each day.”

Added Burger, “The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority, and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable.”

The same principles hold true in Mississippi. It simply isn’t right to compel people to advocate for God on their license plate if they’d rather not.

This matter doesn’t have to go to court. There is an easy solution: Mississippi can keep its “In God We Trust” plate for those who want it, but officials should offer a secular plate for residents who don’t want to display the religious phrase – and make it available at no extra cost.

P.S. Getting “In God We Trust” on license plates is yet another scheme of Project Blitz. Your support helps AU fight this and other bad Blitz bills.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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