Religious Minorities

Mississippi’s New License Plate Is Now Deity Free

  Rob Boston

Mississippi officials have unveiled a design for a new state license plate, and it’s notable for something it doesn’t contain: the phrase “In God We Trust.”

The religious motto has been appearing on Mississippi’s default license plate since 2019. The tag unveiled that year features an image of the official state seal, which includes “In God We Trust.” The only way to avoid having this phrase on your plate was to buy a specialty tag, which costs extra fees.

Some state residents weren’t happy about this. In 2021, American Atheists sued on behalf of three state residents. At the time, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) issued a tweet insisting, “I know Mississippi’s values are our strength … and I meant it when I said as Governor I would defend our values every single day! I will defend ‘In God We Trust’ on our tag, on our flag, and on our state seal …. Every. Single. Day.”

‘Live Free Or Die’ Precedent

U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves (no relation to the governor) seemed sympathetic to the atheists’ argument but ultimately ruled against them. Reeves said that residents who were offended by “In God We Trust” could cover up the phrase with stickers or tape.

That’s true. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of George Maynard, a Jehovah’s Witness and resident of New Hampshire who objected to inclusion of the state motto “Live Free Or Die” on his license plate. Maynard covered it up with red tape. For this, he was repeatedly cited by police until the high court ruled in Wooley v. Maynard.

Yes, a resident of Mississippi could do the same. But imagine how that might play out on the ground in such a hyper-red state. When you cover up the phrase, you’re making a public statement about your objection, and, in the eyes of many conservative, religious Mississippians, insulting God. How will people react to that when they see your SUV parked outside Walmart?

Tape Is Not A Solution

More to the point, a Mississippi law prohibits anything that “covers or obstructs any portion of a license tag.” If police officers see tape on your license plate, they’re likely to pull you over and fine you. Most of them probably don’t know anything about the Maynard ruling, and your attempt to stand along the side of the road and explain constitutional law probably won’t work. At that point, your only option is to spend time and money in court explaining that the fine is illegal and that you have a right to cover up the phrase.

Thankfully, that may not be necessary. Mississippi’s new default tag, which was chosen after a contest open to state residents, replaces the state seal with an image of a magnolia, a flower closely associated with the state.

Why was this change made? Officials are being tight-lipped about that, but American Atheists had appealed its lawsuit; perhaps state officials concluded it was no longer worth it to fight this battle.

If so, they made the right choice. A religious motto should never have been forced onto all Mississippians in the first place.

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