About two months ago, I wrote about Mississippi’s new standard license plate that contains the phrase “In God We Trust.” There have been some complaints about it because not everyone in the state wants to display a religious slogan on the back of their vehicles – and to avoid the phrase, you’d have to pay extra for a specialty tag.
The law is pretty clear. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that states cannot coerce people to display political or religious messages with which they disagree.
Americans United’s attorneys wrote to Mississippi officials about this matter and noted that there’s an easy fix: make a plate available, without extra fees, that doesn’t contain the religious phrase.
But some political leaders in Mississippi don’t want to do that. They’d rather demagogue over the issue.
Consider Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who is running for governor. In an ad, he has vowed to defend Mississippi’s license plate against outside agitators.
“Mississippi has a brand new license plate,” Reeves says in the ad. “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.”
Couple of things here: The “out-of-state liberals” like Americans United intervened in this matter after people who live in Mississippi asked us to. Mississippi is firmly in the Bible Belt, but there are Americans United members there and good people, religious and non-religious, who support church-state separation. (Also, the reference to California, a bogeyman frequently used to terrify Southerners, is gratuitous. Neither Americans United nor the American Humanist Association, which has also objected to the plate, is based in that state.)
Secondly, the hard truth is that sometimes it’s necessary for out-of-state people to ensure that government officials in the South follow the law because they won’t do it otherwise. There’s a long, unfortunate history of this. The federal government’s intervention during the civil rights era is but one example. These days, if a state, city or public school district refuses to respect the basic rights of its citizens, then yes, Americans United (and others) will come in and make sure that they do so. It’s part of the reason we exist – and here’s one example where we did that recently. (But to be fair to the South, I should note that our attorneys get complaints of church-state violations from all over the country and take action in all states.)
Two other Mississippi candidates, State Treasurer Lynn Fitch and state Rep. Mark Baker, both of whom are seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general, are using the license plate flap to win support. In a fundraising letter, Finch wrote, “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.”
It’s tough talk, but that’s all it is. If this went to court, the state would only end up squandering taxpayer money on a likely losing case.
Look, no one is saying Mississippi has to ditch the “In God We Trust” plate for those who want it. We’re just asking the state to make a secular alternative available, without extra fees, for those who aren’t comfortable displaying the religious motto. That way, all rights are protected, and everyone wins.
Would that be so hard?