Atheists in Mississippi are suing the state over its new license plates — which display the phrase, "In God We Trust" — arguing that their First Amendment rights are being violated. One group is even arguing that the phrase is rooted in "deep hostility" toward atheists.
What are the details?
On Tuesday, separation of church and state watchdog organization American Atheists, the Mississippi Humanist Association, and three atheist Mississippi residents filed a lawsuit against the state's commissioner of revenue, Chris Graham, for allegedly trampling on the rights of nonreligious residents by forcing them to display the national motto on their personal vehicles.
Since 2019, the standard license tag in Mississippi has included the phrase, "In God We Trust." As such, car owners in the state are required to display the message on their vehicles, or else pay a fee for an alternative design. Additionally, for some specialized vehicles — such as trailers and motorcycles — there are no alternative designs available.
With the lawsuit, the coalition of atheists hopes to force Mississippi to provide nonreligious residents with an alternative license plate at no extra cost.
"Wherever I use my trailer, I am forced to profess a religious idea that I do not believe," said plaintiff Jason Alan Griggs in the lawsuit. "Imagine a Christian having to drive around with 'In No God We Trust' or 'In Allah We Trust.'"
Another plaintiff, Derenda Hancock, who describes herself as "a radical atheist," insists the government should not have the power to violate "her right to be free from religion."
"I don't want Jesus riding on my car," she reportedly told a tag agent in January 2019. At that time, she paid the $32 for a specialty "Mississippi Blues Trail" license plate and did the same again in 2020.
American Atheists, a national organization dedicated to ensuring the complete separation of church and state, argued that the license plate stigmatizes nonreligious individuals as unpatriotic and unfairly makes them a "mouthpiece" for a cause they don't believe in.
"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 Blackwell, litigation counsel at American Atheists, in a news release. "Some can avoid being a mouthpiece for the government by paying a penalty. For many others, even that isn't possible. 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."
The group also argued in the news release that the phrase, "In God We Trust," is "rooted in deep hostility toward atheists."
It claimed the phrase, which was first included on U.S. coins in the 1860s, was done so to "relieve [the country] from the ignominy of heathenism," according to Treasury Department records. Nearly a century later, the phrase was made the national motto in order to differentiate the U.S. from the "godless" Soviets, the group claimed.
As a gubernatorial candidate in 2019, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves ran a campaign ad touting the new license plates, equating "In God We Trust" with "Mississippi's values."
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