American Atheists Sues Mississippi Over “In God We Trust” License Plates
The lawsuit seeks a free alternative for Mississippians who object to displaying a religious message on their personal vehicles.
On June 22, 2021, American Atheists filed a lawsuit against Mississippi over the state’s “In God We Trust” license plate, the standard plate since 2019.
American Atheists is joined by the Mississippi Humanist Association and three nonreligious Mississippi residents in this litigation.
The complaint accuses the Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue of violating nonreligious people’s freedoms of speech and religion by forcing them to display this religious message on their private property.
American Atheists demands that Mississippi offer an alternative license plate at no additional fee.
“In God We Trust” in Mississippi
Mississippi politicians have been forcing “In God We Trust” messaging onto more and more people, and they have been clear that their reason for doing so is religious.
In 2014, then-state Senator Michael Watson, Jr., proposed adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal by amending the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act through Senate Bill 2681. In 2020, Watson, now the Mississippi Secretary of State, explained his motivation to Magee News: “This phrase signals Mississippi’s allegiance to God as well as our country.”
In January 2014, then-Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves praised the state Senate’s vote to put “In God We Trust” on the state seal; he claimed on Facebook that “Mississippians have a strong faith in God,” a statement that excludes Mississippi atheists and non-Christians.
In April 2014, then-Governor Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2681 into law. Following the adoption of the new seal, Phil Bryant said in his 2015 State of the State speech, “[B]y simply adding our national motto to the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi, we professed our understanding of a higher power over the affairs of men. We expressed a faith that this wonderful state will continue to be blessed. Let us now and forever boldly and without apology affirm, ‘In God we trust.'”
In January 2019, Mississippi added “In God We Trust” to the standard license plate. In his election campaign for governor, 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.” In the video, Reeves equates “In God We Trust” with “Mississippi’s values,” insinuating that only Christians are real Mississippians.
American Atheists’ Lawsuit Against Mississippi
Since 2019, the standard Mississippi license plate has displayed the religious message, “In God We Trust.” American Atheists’ lawsuit, filed on June 22, 2021, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, demands that the state government offer an alternative license plate at no additional fee.
Currently, trailer, RV, and motorcycle owners, motorists with disabilities, and drivers with a custom plate message must display “In God We Trust.” Car owners without a disability or a custom plate message must pay approximately $32 for a specialty plate without “In God We Trust.” This amounts to a fine. The Supreme Court in Wooley v. Maynard (1977) declared such compelled speech on license plates unconstitutional after a Jehovah’s Witnesses driver in New Hampshire objected to displaying “Live Free or Die.”
Two recent Supreme Court cases, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia and Tandon v. Newsom, bolster American Atheists’ claims. The Supreme Court ruled that where a system of exemptions exists, a similar exemption must be provided for anyone with religious objections. In Mississippi, special categories of individuals, including members of the armed forces, their spouses, government officials, and sheriffs, can receive alternative license plates at no additional fee. Therefore, Mississippi must also provide such plates to atheists and religious Mississippians who object to the Christian message, “In God We Trust.”
American Atheists’ lawsuit does not challenge the constitutionality of the national motto or the current Seal of the State of Mississippi. Numerous legal challenges, including one in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by American Atheists’ founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair (O’Hair v. Blumenthal) in 1979, were unsuccessful. American Atheists lawsuit, instead, challenges the constitutionality of forcing certain drivers to display this religious message and penalizing others if they choose not to.
Hear From Our Plaintiffs
Jason Alan Griggs
Jason is an atheist and a secular humanist. He supports the separation between religion and government and objects to the inclusion of God on state-sponsored and state-regulated items. He worries that those who belong to minority religions will, like him, be constantly reminded of their minority status and he objects to being forced to profess a religious idea he does not believe.
Quotes From Jason
“I have compassion for my fellow humans who are religious minorities. I worry that citizens who do not believe in God are being constantly reminded of their minority status and that they live in fear of the majority.”
“Wherever I use my trailer, I am forced to profess a religious idea that I do not believe. Imagine a Christian having to drive around with ‘In No God We Trust’ or ‘In Allah We Trust.’”
Kim is an atheist humanist who objects to displaying “In God We Trust” on her vehicle because she does not trust in any gods. She objects to the Mississippi government mandating that the residents of the state, who hold a multitude of different religious beliefs, display that phrase on their vehicle.
Quote From Kim
“I take issue with ‘In God We Trust’ because I do not trust in any god; I am not part of that ‘we.’ I object to having a false statement, especially one that is theocratic, on my vehicle. I shouldn’t have to pay extra to the state of Mississippi for a non-theocratic license plate. Many people in this state with different beliefs shouldn’t be penalized, as well. This is wrong.”
Derenda describes herself as a radical atheist and believes that religion should not dictate at all how she lives her life. She believes that having the government insist that she display a religious message on her vehicle violates her rights.
Quote From Derenda
“I object to being forced to ‘advertise’ for a deity that I do not believe in, that doesn’t exist. Others’ religion should not dictate my life in any form or fashion. And to have the state insist that I display a religious implement on my vehicles is a violation of my right of freedom from religion.”
Sarah Worrel is the Assistant State Director for Gulfport, Mississippi for American Atheists and the current leader of the MS Gulf Coast Humanists and co-organizer for the MS Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinker Association.
Quote From Sarah
“For years, I had a personalized license plate message on the old blues guitar design. 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.”
Mississippi Humanist Association
The Mississippi Humanist Association is a nonprofit organization that seeks to be a welcoming community for secular humanists in Mississippi. The MHA provides opportunities for secular humanists to come together for social events and to volunteer and fundraise for charitable causes. The MHA informs and educates their fellow Mississippians about humanism and believes that they have the ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity, without theism or other supernatural beliefs.
Quotes From Members of the MHA
“Governor Reeves likes to think everyone who lives in Mississippi is a Christian. The truth is, the wonderful diversity of this state means our friends and neighbors may very well have different belief systems. As Humanists, we believe declarations of faith should be both personal and meaningful. A state-mandated license plate is neither. All Mississippians, regardless of faith or lack thereof, have the right to express their own values. This means access to a secular tag at no additional cost.”
– Amelia Craig, vice president of the Mississippi Humanist Association
“I moved to Mississippi just a few years ago when my husband died. I was shocked to find that living and driving in Mississippi means that I have to display an affirmation of religious faith printed onto my car tag. As an older widow on a fixed income, I am incensed that I have to pay extra for a specialty plate just to avoid having a religious statement displayed on my car. It is an extra tax on atheists, agnostics, and others who might have different, and private, beliefs.”
– Lori Rowlett, secretary of the Mississippi Humanist Association
“As a Mississippi resident with a permanent disability, I have no other option but to put ‘In God We Trust’ on my property. It’s most certainly not what I believe, but in Mississippi there is just no alternative.”
– Sue Moss, a member of the Mississippi Humanist Association
Information for the Press
American Atheists’ staff and plaintiffs are making themselves available for in-person, phone, and online interviews with members of the press and media. To schedule an interview, please reach out to Tom Van Denburgh, American Atheists’ Communications Director, at [email protected].
You can read American Atheists’ press release announcing the lawsuit here.
For more information about the National Motto “In God We Trust,” including its divisive history, please visit NationalMotto.org.
You can learn more about Project Blitz, a coordinated campaign by Christian Nationalists to implement radical, Christian-supremacist policies that push the false narrative that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, including by enacting legislation mandating the display of “In God We Trust” in classrooms, public buildings, and on license plates at BlitzWatch.org.