Tennessee bill requiring 'In God We Trust' on license plates stirs controversy

Tennessee has used this standard license plate since 2006. Some legislators want to add the words "In God We Trust" to a redesigned standard plate.
Tennessee has used this standard license plate since 2006. Some legislators want to add the words "In God We Trust" to a redesigned standard plate.

NASHVILLE - A bill requiring all Tennessee license plates to sport the national motto, "In God We Trust," is a "wonderful idea," said the measure's sponsor, who introduced it at an Obion County constituent's request.

But the head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and an official with American Atheists Inc. disagree.

ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg called the measure problematic.

"Government is forcing citizens to include ideological religious messages on their cars, conscripting them into being mobile advertisements of religion," Weinberg said.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, said last week that "our government was founded on religious belief. I'm not trying to cram anything down anyone's throat."

"There are many gods," he added. "We're not saying 'Jesus Christ.'"

As for objections that may come from atheists or others, Sanderson said they could purchase any one of the state's "dozens of specialty" plates already available.

But depending on the type of specialty plate sought, that can cost purchasers an additional $35 above the standard plate's $21.50 price.

The language of the bill says nothing about excluding specialty plates. "All registration plates issued or renewed pursuant to this chapter shall include the language 'In God We Trust,'" the bill states.

Sanderson doesn't have a Senate sponsor, but he said last week he doesn't expect a problem finding one.

During the 109th General Assembly, state lawmakers passed legislation making the Bible Tennessee's official state book. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed it, citing concerns that it belittled a book he himself finds sacred, in addition to potential constitutional issues. House efforts to override his veto failed.

Weinberg noted that in Tennessee, "there is already an optional specialty tag with the motto, and that should suffice."

According to the state Department of Revenue website, the plate benefits the American Eagle Foundation. It uses the $35 it receives on each plate purchased to aid the group's effort to preserve the American Bald Eagle and its habitat.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states currently have made available plates that say "In God We Trust."

In Georgia, residents can pay a $1 fee for a sticker with the national motto and affix it to the bottom of their vehicle plate.

Six years ago in Kentucky, the state made a plate with "In God We Trust" one of two standard plates costing the same amount.

Indiana provided a plate with the motto at the same price as the standard plate. Other states appear to have adopted similar policies on equal pricing between a standard plate and their new "In God We Trust" tag.

According to the NCSL website, the ACLU sued Indiana in an effort to require the state to charge the $15 specialty plate fee. But courts found for the state, which argued the plate wasn't actually a "specialty plate," but a second standard plate not subject to an additional fee, according to NCSL.

Nick Fish, national program director for the American Atheists group, said such measures "seem to people who are believers like such tiny little things - that if you don't like it too bad, 'they' can work around it."

But Fish argued that "putting this sort of thing in all these little places and all over in the state houses and city council chambers and courtrooms, it sends a signal that those of us who are non-believers, those of us who are atheists, that our government isn't fully representing us and is claiming things that just aren't true, that we trust in God.'"

He cited surveys he said show nearly one-quarter of Americans are "non-religious" and 10 to 15 percent who "don't believe in God, depending on how you ask the question."

Last year, American Atheists filed suit in federal court on behalf of an anonymous resident against Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff Eric Watson, alleging Watson used the government agency's website to promote Christianity, deleting the comments of anyone critical of his office or from atheists critical of his religious views.

Watson settled the case for $41,000, the Times Free Press reported in August.

"If [legislators] move forward with this [plate bill] and they decide to put 'In God We Trust' on all the plates and the only way to get one that doesn't say 'In God We Trust' is to pay additional money, that's something we'll have to look at," Fish said. "I'll have to check with our folks on the legal side of things to see where we would go from there.

"But you know," he added, "in general, we shouldn't have to threaten lawsuits and do certain sorts of things for the state Legislature to do the right thing."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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