Atheists and humanists sue Miss over license plate charges without God

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The Mississippi standard license plate shows the state seal containing the phrase “In God We Trust”. Image courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Revenue

July 2 (UPI) – Atheists and humanists, saying they oppose being “a spokesperson for the government’s preferred message,” sue Mississippi for the lack of a no-cost alternative to its standard license plate, which includes the phrase “In God we trust”.

To get a godless design, a vehicle owner must pay additional fees for one of the state’s specialty plaques, such as I Care For Animals and Dyslexia Awareness. The cost of most specialty plates is an additional $ 33 per year.

The lawsuit also notes that owners of trailers, motorhomes and motorcycles, disabled motorists, and drivers who have a personalized plate with alphanumeric combinations of their choice do not have the option of paying extra to avoid display “In God We Trust” on their vehicles. . Their license plate is derived from the current standard design with the accompanying message.

This design has “Mississippi” in stylized letters and the state seal, which includes the words “In God We Trust”. The plaque became available from January 2019.

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

The plaintiffs – the Mississippi Humanist Association, American Atheists Inc. and three residents of the state – want the ability to get an alternative plate without “In God We Trust” on it at no additional cost and a statement requiring vehicle owners to posting a religious message violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

The lawsuit, which was filed on June 22 in U.S. District Court in Jackson and names Revenue Commissioner Chris Graham as the defendant, says the plaintiffs are not challenging the national currency or state seal, but rather the requirement that non-religious leaders display “a language with a long and substantial history of hostility towards atheists and other non-Christians.”

Political question

When he was campaigning for governor in 2019, then Lieutenant. Governor Tate Reeves broadcast 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 her. It is because of these four words: “In God we trust. The California and Washington Liberals are threatening to sue Mississippi just because of that license plate… I know Mississippi values ​​are Mississippi’s strength. Our next governor must stand up for our values ​​every day. “

On the day the complaint was filed, Reeves, now governor, reiterated his support for the license plate.

“I meant it when I said as governor that I would defend our values ​​every day! Reeves said in a tweet. “I will stand for ‘In God We Trust’ on our label, on our flag and on our state seal… .Each. Only. Day.”

In addition to the standard license plate, Mississippi law provides special plates at no additional cost to armed forces on active duty or in retirement; government officials; ex-combatant group commanders; former prisoners of war; Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients; people who are hard of hearing; and sheriffs and sheriff’s assistants for use on vehicles used in the performance of official departmental functions.

Dianne Ellis, a lawyer in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, representing the plaintiffs, said car owners should not be punished with higher fees for refusing to promote a “message of exclusion and division.”

“They have a right to an alternative, Ellis says in a press release.

Not among the “us”

Plaintiff Jason Alan Griggs, a medical researcher who lives in Brandon, took issue with Reeves’ claim that strangers were 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.

Additionally, Griggs told UPI that he is bringing Mississippi a lot of federal funding and money from out-of-state medical device makers for his work in developing better implants that will last longer in the human body without s. ‘wear or break.

“We are local Mississippians,” he said.

Griggs has said he is opposed to having to pay extra for the license plates on his car and his sons’ cars in order to avoid professing a belief in his personal property that differs from his actual belief. He also has a trailer, which is not eligible for an alternate plate.

“I am an atheist and a secular humanist. Personally, I don’t believe in the existence of God, ”Griggs said. “I believe that people are inherently good in nature and that they are not inherently flawed and that they do not need any god to be good.”

He is also concerned that the standard license plate will give the impression that the state officially supports the majority religion. This can cause members of minority faiths who have received death threats or whose religious property and buildings have been vandalized “to live in fear of the majority because of the few people who threatened them,” Griggs said.

Another plaintiff, atheist humanist L. Kim Gibson of Jackson, “is not one of the ‘we’ who trust a deity, and therefore has no interest in posting a false statement,” the lawsuit says. .

The third complainant, Derenda Hancock, a Brandon resident who describes herself as a radical atheist, opposes the advertising of a deity that she says does not exist on her 2004 Hyundai Tiburon and 2021 Hyundai. She paid for it. $ 32 each to obtain a special “Mississippi Blues Trail” plaque for both vehicles.

“She believes that the religion of others should not dictate how she lives her life in any form, and that the government insists that she display a religious message on her vehicle violates her right to be free. religion, “says the lawsuit.

The lawsuit cites two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to support its claims, including a June 17 ruling that says Catholic Social Services has the First Amendment right to refuse to accept couples from same sex 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 non-discrimination policies. The judges unanimously decided that the city’s action weighed on the religious exercise of CCS by forcing it either to reduce its mission or to certify same-sex couples as foster parents in violation of its religious beliefs.

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

“The court ruled that where a law or policy includes a system of exemptions, a similar exemption should be granted to anyone with religious objections,” American Atheists said in a press release. “Since Mississippi offers alternative plate designs for certain categories of individuals, atheists and other Mississippians who oppose ‘In God We Trust’ should be treated equally.”

The statement also notes that the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that forced speech on license plates was unconstitutional in the case of a Jehovah’s Witness who objected to the display of the state motto of New Hampshire “Live Free or Die”.

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