Atheist groups say Mississippi license plate violates their First Amendment rights

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Several organizations have filed a federal lawsuit demanding an alternative to the state's standard license plate which features the motto, 'In God We Trust.'

Forcing Mississippians to display the motto "In God We Trust" on their license plates defies the First Amendment, several atheist groups claimed in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, claiming the phrase is historically "rooted in hostility toward non-Christians and atheists."

The plaintiffs — three non-religious Mississippi residents, American Atheists, and the Mississippi Humanist Association — are demanding the state offer a plate devoid of the religious motto for no additional fee. The lawsuit targets Chris Graham, who oversees the state agency which registers vehicles.

"No state may force a person to be a mouthpiece for the government’s preferred message. This freedom from compelled speech is a foundational tenet of American society," the lawsuit states. "Yet the State of Mississippi demands exactly that from every single car owner in the state. In so doing, the state is violating of nearly a century of settled
First Amendment law."

In a press release announcing the suit, Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists, said, "Every minute they spend on the streets of Mississippi, atheists are forced to act as a billboard for the state's religious message."

"Some can avoid being a mouthpiece for the government by paying a penalty. For many others, even that isn't possible," he continued. "Atheists with a disability or a special category of vehicle are stuck proclaiming a belief in the Christian god. It's an abuse of power and unconstitutional."

Specialty license plates without the motto typically cost drivers a $33 fee. However, most drivers with disabilities and RV, trailer, and motorcycle owners aren't offered that alternative. 

"As a Mississippi resident with a permanent disability, I have no other option but to put 'In God We Trust' on my property," defendant Sue Moss said, according to the press release. "It's most certainly not what I believe, but in Mississippi there is just no alternative."

The suit echoes the 1977 Supreme Court case Wooley V. Maynard. Justices in that case ruled in favor of George Maynard, a Jehovah's Witness who had been fined for altering the New Hampshire state motto, "Live Free or Die," on his license plate.

The court ruled 6-3 that the state couldn't require residents to display the motto, forcing them to use "their private property as a 'mobile billboard' for the State's ideological message."

The words, "In God We Trust" were added to Mississippi's state seal only recently, in 2014, and to standard license plates in 2019. 

During his 2019 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Tate Reeves made clear his support for the motto's prominent placement on Mississippi plates with an ad touting the design.

"Mississippi has a brand new license plate, but out-of-state liberals hate it," Reeves said in the ad, while affixing a plate to a car. "It's because of these four words: 'In God We Trust.'"

He continued, "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."

The motto was also added to Mississippi’s state flag in 2020, after the state legislature cast a historic vote to scrap its design featuring a Confederate insignia. The new flag was approved by nearly three-fourths of voters.

Despite its statewide popularity, the plaintiffs claimed in their suit that the motto "is rooted in hostility toward non-Christians and atheists" and is "intended to convey the message that non-belief in the Christian god is un-American."

They said the phrase was a throwback to the Cold War, when "to be an atheist ... was widely regarded as indistinguishable from being a Soviet agent."

"Congress enacted the new motto [back then] in order to differentiate the United States from the 'godless Communists," they wrote. "... For many, then and now, to be an atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious is to be un-American and the motto 'IN GOD WE TRUST' is intended to convey that hostile, exclusionary message."

Reeves, meanwhile, has since responded to the lawsuit, tweeting on Tuesday, "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."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.