Atheists, humanists sue over Mississippi’s ‘In God We Trust’ license plates

The complaint accuses the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue of violating the people’s freedom...
The complaint accuses the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue of violating the people’s freedom of speech and religion by forcing them to display a religious message on their personal vehicles.(Mississippi Department of Revenue)
Published: Jun. 22, 2021 at 5:02 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 22, 2021 at 7:17 PM CDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Another Mississippi symbol is becoming a point of contention for some residents.

On Tuesday, American Atheists, the Mississippi Humanist Association and three nonreligious Mississippi residents filed a federal lawsuit against Mississippi over the state’s “In God We Trust” license plate. The complaint accuses the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue of violating the people’s freedom of speech and religion by forcing them to display this religious message on their personal vehicles.

The Mississippi license plate has included “In God We Trust” since 2019. The lawsuit claims that car owners are forced to promote this religious statement or pay an additional fee for a specialty plate without it.

“Every minute they spend on the streets of Mississippi, atheists are forced to act as a billboard for the state’s religious message,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists. “Some can avoid being a mouthpiece for the government by paying a penalty.”

BREAKING: We just filed a lawsuit in Mississippi challenging the state's requirement that every driver display the...

Posted by American Atheists on Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The lawsuit also claims that there are no alternatives to the “In God We Trust” plate for trailers, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, drivers with disabilities and custom plates.

“For years, I had a personalized license plate message on the old blues guitar design,” said American Atheists’ Mississippi Assistant State Director for Gulfport Sarah Worrel. “In 2019, when ‘In God We Trust’ became the new standard plate, I was forced to either give up my chosen message or display it alongside the Mississippi government’s religious statement. I shouldn’t have to make that choice. The government shouldn’t be able to decree that I display a message that goes against my beliefs.”

In 2020, the motto was also chosen to be printed on the new Mississippi state flag, replacing the older design, which featured a Confederate battle symbol. Ahead of the new design being approved by the legislature, the Satanic Temple threatened its own lawsuit against Attorney General Lynn Fitch, citing similar constitutional concerns.

The group claims that Gov. Tate Reeves has expressed hostility toward atheist groups before, pointing specifically at his election campaign for governor when Reeves campaigned on the “In God We Trust” message, boasting about the new license plate and affixing one to a vehicle in a 2019 commercial titled “In God We Trust.”

“Mississippi car owners should not be punished with higher fees for refusing to promote an exclusionary and divisive message,” said Ocean Springs attorney Dianne Ellis. “They are entitled to an alternative.”

Ellis said that the Supreme Court, in 1977, ruled that such compelled speech on license plates was unconstitutional. Two recent Supreme Court cases, Fulton and Tandon, also support American Atheists’ claims.

The Court ruled that where a law or policy includes a system of exemptions, a similar exemption must be provided for anyone with religious objections. Since Mississippi does not provide alternative plate designs to certain categories of individuals, in theory, atheists and other Mississippians who object to “In God We Trust” must receive equal treatment.

“No matter how much Gov. Reeves or other politicians want to pretend that Mississippi is some kind of Christians-only club, it doesn’t make it true,” said President of American Atheists Nick Fish. “Forcing atheist drivers to endorse a religious message they reject is antithetical to our values as Americans and unconstitutional, plain and simple.”

While groups such as American Atheists demand that Mississippi offer a plate without “In God We Trust” at no additional fee, Reeves reacted to the suit Tuesday with a tweet promising to fight to keep the motto on the state’s tag, flag and seal.

You can read the entire complaint online>>

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