Mississippi "In God We Trust" License Plate Design Unconstitutional
For Immediate Release
Contact: David Niose, 202-238-9088 ext. 119, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Washington, D.C., May 11, 2018)—The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center demands that Governor Bryant of Mississippi end a plan to change the design of the state’s sole standard license plate to one that displays the words “In God We Trust.” Several Mississippi residents notified the American Humanist Association about a change, which would now display the state seal (containing the words “In God We Trust”) on the state’s standard license plate. This would force non-theistic motorists to purchase an alternative plate at a higher cost if they wish to avoid promoting the theistic phrase, “In God We Trust.” AHA Legal Director David Niose wrote a letter today to Governor Bryant objecting to the plan.
The letter follows below.
Dear Governor Bryant,
Several Mississippi residents, including members of the Mississippi Humanist Association, which is a chapter of the American Humanist Association, have contacted our office with serious concerns regarding reports that the standard Mississippi license plate is being changed to a design that displays the words "In God We Trust." Reports indicate that, in order to avoid publicly displaying those theistic words, vehicle owners will have to purchase a variety plate at a higher cost. This gives rise to serious constitutional concerns, as I'll explain briefly below.
To display any statement on the back of one's vehicle is to promote that statement. Unlike the use of "In God We Trust" on money, which is only visible if one makes an affirmative effort to read it, the larger public display of "In God We Trust" on motor vehicles, alongside bumper stickers and other signage, more clearly makes a statement endorsing the theistic assumptions underlying the phrase. The problem, obviously, is that many individuals do not believe in a God, let alone trust in him, her, or it. Thus, to create a standard license plate that displays that phrase, with no alternative at an equal cost that avoids such a statement, unconstitutionally endorses religion.
In Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961), the Supreme Court ruled that the state cannot require individuals to affirm a belief in God. Your new license plate would require exactly that. In the case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), the Court ruled that students cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag, because free speech principles are offended when individuals are required to profess fundamental truths that they do not believe. And in a significant free-speech case involving license plates, Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), the Court ruled that an individual could not be forced to display a license plate containing a state motto ("Live Free or Die"). The Court in that case commented on the unique nature of license plates, in that they are essentially "mobile billboards."
The American Humanist Association (AHA) is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., with over 650,000 supporters and members across the country, including many in Mississippi. The mission of AHA’s legal center is to protect one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy: First Amendment liberties, including free speech and church-state separation. Our legal center includes a network of cooperating attorneys from around the country, and we have litigated constitutional cases in state and federal courts from coast to coast, including Mississippi.
It is our expectation that proper steps will be taken to ensure that non-theistic Mississippi drivers can, without paying extra for a variety plate, display a license plate that does not make a theistic affirmation. Ideally, this would mean the state choosing another, neutral design as the standard plate. In the alternative, other options could be made available at the standard-plate rate. Either way, we hope that the issue will be promptly addressed. Thank you, and feel free to contact me if you or your representatives wish to discuss this matter.
David A. Niose Legal Director American Humanist Association Appignani Humanist Legal Center Telephone: 202-238-9088 x119 www.americanhumanist.org
Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, DC, the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.