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Atheists, humanists sue Miss. over fee for Godless license plate

Atheists, humanists sue Miss. over fee for Godless license plate
The standard Mississippi license plate shows the state seal containing the phrase "In God We Trust." Image courtesy of Mississippi Department of Revenue

July 1 (UPI) -- Atheists and humanists, saying they object to being "a mouthpiece for the government's preferred message," are suing Mississippi over the lack of a no-extra-cost alternative to its standard license plate, which includes the phrase "In God We Trust."

To get a design without a mention of God, a vehicle owner must pay an additional fee for one of the state's specialty plates, such as I Care For Animals and Dyslexia Awareness. The cost for most specialty plates is an additional $33 a year.

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The suit also notes that trailer, RV and motorcycle owners, motorists with disabilities and drivers who have a personalized plate with alphanumeric combinations of their own choosing don't have the alternative of paying extra to avoid displaying "In God We Trust" on their vehicles. Their license plate is derived from the current standard design with the accompanying message.

That design has "Mississippi" in stylized letters and the state seal, which includes the words "In God We Trust." The plate became available beginning in January 2019.

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Under Mississippi law, failure to display a valid license plate and decal on a vehicle is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $25.

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The plaintiffs -- the Mississippi Humanist Association, American Atheists Inc. and three state residents -- want the option of getting an alternative plate without "In God We Trust" on it at no extra cost and a declaration that compelling vehicle owners to display a religious message violates their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The suit, which was filed June 22 in U.S. District Court in Jackson and names Commissioner of Revenue Chris Graham as the defendant, says the plaintiffs are not challenging the national motto or the state seal but rather the requirement that nonreligious drivers display "language with a long and substantial history of hostility toward atheists and other non-Christians."

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Political issue

When he was campaigning for governor in 2019, then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves ran a television commercial showing himself putting a license plate on a vehicle and saying, "Mississippi has a brand new license plate, 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."

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The day the suit was filed, Reeves, now governor, repeated his support for the license plate.

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"I meant it when I said as governor I would defend our values every single day!" Reeves said in a tweet. "I will defend 'In God We Trust' on our tag, on our flag and on our state seal....Every. Single. Day."

In addition to the standard license plate, Mississippi law provides special plates at no additional fee to active duty or retired armed forces; government officials; veterans' group commanders; ex-POWs; Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients; people who are hearing impaired; and sheriffs and sheriff's deputies for use on vehicles used in carrying out official department duties.

Dianne Ellis, an Ocean Springs, Miss., attorney representing the plaintiffs, says car owners should not be punished with higher fees for refusing to promote an "exclusionary and divisive message."

"They are entitled to an alternative," Ellis says in a news release.

Not among the 'we'

Plaintiff Jason Alan Griggs, a medical researcher who lives in Brandon, disputed Reeves' claim that out-of-staters are behind the lawsuit. He has been teaching biological materials science at the University of Mississippi Medical Center for 14 years and is married to a Mississippi native.

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In addition, Griggs told UPI that he brings a lot of federal funds and money from out-of-state medical device manufacturers into Mississippi for his work developing better implants that will last longer in the human body without wearing out or breaking.

"We are local Mississippians," he said.

Griggs said he objects to having to pay extra for license plates for his car and his sons' cars to avoid professing a belief on his personal property that differs from his actual belief. He also owns a trailer, which is not eligible for an alternative plate.

"I'm an atheist and a secular humanist. I personally don't believe in the existence of God," Griggs said. "I believe that people are basically good in nature and they are not fundamentally flawed and that they don't need any god to be good."

He also is concerned the standard license plate makes it appear that the state is officially backing the majority religion. That can cause members of minority faiths who have gotten death threats or whose property and religious buildings have been vandalized "to live in fear of the majority because of the few people who have been threatening them," Griggs said.

Another plaintiff, atheist humanist L. Kim Gibson, of Jackson, "is not among the 'we' who trust in any deity, and so she has no interest in displaying a false statement," according to the suit.

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The third individual plaintiff, Derenda Hancock, a Brandon resident who describes herself as a radical atheist, objects to advertising a deity that she believes does not exist on her 2004 Hyundai Tiburon and 2021 Hyundai. She has paid $32 each to get a "Mississippi Blues Trail" specialty plate for the two vehicles.

"She believes that others' religion should not dictate how she lives her life in any form or fashion, and to have the government insist that she display a religious message on her vehicle violates her right to be free from religion," the suit says.

The lawsuit cites two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings to support its claims, including a June 17 decision that says Catholic Social Services has a First Amendment right to refuse to accept same-sex couples as foster parents.

The agency has a contract with Philadelphia to provide foster care services and sued when the city said it would no longer refer children to the agency unless it agreed to comply with nondiscrimination policies. The justices unanimously ruled the city's action burdened CCS's religious exercise by forcing it either to curtail its mission or to certify same-sex couples as foster parents in violation of its religious beliefs.

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In a 5-4 decision on April 9, the Supreme Court said California cannot enforce its COVID-19 restrictions limiting the number of households gathered in a home for worship. Pastors and business owners had argued, respectively, that the limits violated the right to the free exercise of religion and the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

"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," American Atheists says in a news release. "Since Mississippi provides alternative plate designs to certain categories of individuals, atheists and other Mississippians who object to 'In God We Trust' must receive equal treatment."

The release also notes the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that compelled speech on license plates was unconstitutional in the case of a Jehovah's Witness who objected to displaying the New Hampshire state motto "Live Free or Die."

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