Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Interesting Church/State Situation

An interesting discussion on the religionlaw listserv about a situation in Indiana, where the state is offering a specialty license plate that says “in God We Trust” on it. Now, that alone is not an establishment clause problem; Indiana and many other states off a wide range of specialty plates with a wide range of messages on them and you can choose which you want to buy or take the standard state license plate, as most do. What brings up a potential church/state issue is the fact that, unlike all of the other specialty plates the state offers, there is no extra charge for the “In God We Trust” plate.

For a fee ranging from $10 to $25, Indiana residents can get a specialty plate that expresses their support for various organizations and ideas. You can support the Rotary Club with a plate that says “Service over Self”, or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by declaring “On the Road to a Cure” on your license plate. You can signify your green credentials with a special environmental plate or urge others to “Support Our Troops” if you’d like. But you have to pay for all of those message plates, while the In God We Trust plate is free.


Eugene Volokh suggests that this is analogous to the same motto on the currency, which the courts have ruled is not a violation of the establishment clause:

Well, to the same extent that the motto on currency is establishment, or the phrase “Let this be our motto, In God Is Our Trust” in our national anthem is establishment — which is to say, given the courts’ caselaw on this, not establishment.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Volokh agrees with those rulings, but he is right that if a court views the situation as analogous to the motto on American currency, it’s unlikely that they’ll see a constitutional problem. But Steve Sanders provides the counter-argument:

Were Indiana to put this same motto on all standard license plates, and not offer its citizens any choice in the matter, I think the analogy to the currency would be perfectly apt.

But this seems different. In Indiana, there’s a standard plate and various optional plates. If you choose an optional plate to express your support for your university, or veterans, or the national guard, or DARE, or even “our troops,” you pay an extra fee. But choose the optional plate on which you display the government’s endorsement of God, and the government in effect gives you a subsidy for agreeing to propagate that particular religious message.

Is it a big deal? Not really. But I tend to think Steve is right. By treating this message plate with an explicit religious endorsement differently than other plates, the message is that the state prefers that message over all the other optional messages available. One could even argue that the message is being subsidized, indirectly, by being free as opposed to other optional messages available.

Comments

  1. #1 Chuck
    March 26, 2007

    Thank you for addressing this issue, Ed. When I first saw the plates popping up this year, beginning in 2007, I mistakenly thought it was the new standard plate that everyone had to get. My license plate renewal comes around in June, and I thought I would have to fork out $25 bucks to get a Purdue plate or an Environment plate to avoid proclaiming to the world my trust in God.

    I’m glad its only optional. I am a little concerned that the state is offering the plate free, but the fact that its optional takes a lot of the weight out of the issue for me. Like you said, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal.

  2. #2 llDayo
    March 26, 2007

    I think you need to ask whether they’d allow for an “In Allah We Trust” for free or any other deities. Or maybe an atheistic one “In Humanity I Trust”. Would someone be allowed to get a plate like that to reflect their faith?

  3. #3 J-Dog
    March 26, 2007

    If you can’t also get “God is an Idiot” on your license plate, I think it’s time to get down and get litigious…

  4. #4 Michael LoPrte
    March 26, 2007

    I strongly suggest the following very short post and the comments following as required reading on the subject, as it raises an additional point–that BMV’s may be treating the “optional” plate as the default plate, or at least equivalent to it:

    http://www.takingdownwords.com/taking_down_words/2007/03/default_judgmen.html

    Here’s the thing that gets me, though. Taking the lord’s name in vain is prohibited within the Ten Commandments, so how is it ok to plaster it on a vanity plate?

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    March 26, 2007

    IlDayo wrote:

    I think you need to ask whether they’d allow for an “In Allah We Trust” for free or any other deities. Or maybe an atheistic one “In Humanity I Trust”. Would someone be allowed to get a plate like that to reflect their faith?

    A very good point that I intended to make but forgot. Imagine for a moment that California did something similar, but made the “In Allah We Trust” plates free while you had to pay for all other specialty plates. I guarantee you that the very same people who will defend what Indiana is doing and think we separationists (of which I’m not a particularly doctrinaire one, in fact) are crazy to make an issue out of it, would be going ballistic over it. Just like they would if a teacher was proselytizing about the Quran, or a school was requiring Muslim prayers every day, or inviting an Imam to deliver a graduation invocation. It has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with gaining an advantage for their religion over others. Call this religious rent seeking.

  6. #6 Stuart Coleman
    March 26, 2007

    Is this a lawsuit or just an observation? I agree that this is kind of sort of maybe a violation, but it’s so benign that suing seems pointless (like that lawsuit about the San Diego cross a while ago). It’d be nice if they fixed it and treated it the same as the rest of the plates, but I highly doubt anyone will mind if they don’t.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    March 26, 2007

    No lawsuit has been filed that I know of; it’s just an observation and an academic argument at this point.

  8. #8 Dave S.
    March 26, 2007

    Imagine for a moment that California did something similar, but made the “In Allah We Trust” plates free while you had to pay for all other specialty plates. I guarantee you that the very same people who will defend what Indiana is doing and think we separationists (of which I’m not a particularly doctrinaire one, in fact) are crazy to make an issue out of it, would be going ballistic over it.

    That, and they’d try to evade by claiming that “In God We Trust” was chosen merely because it was a US motto, whereas “In Allah We Trust” is not.

  9. #9 Suze
    March 26, 2007

    Doesn’t the extra money for a tag supporting something like the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation actually go at least in part to the charity? If that’s the case, then charging extra for the god plate might be the bigger problem — where would the money go?

  10. #10 llDayo
    March 26, 2007

    Doesn’t the extra money for a tag supporting something like the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation actually go at least in part to the charity? If that’s the case, then charging extra for the god plate might be the bigger problem — where would the money go?

    Televangelists. Where else?

  11. #11 ctw
    March 26, 2007

    “separationists (of which I’m not a particularly doctrinaire one”

    I think it would be better to avoid this sort of aside (possibly interpretable by unnamed co-bloggers as mild “appeasement” (:>)), since it implicitly concedes being at least somewhat doctrinaire. in recommending your blog, I always emphasize your objectivity and note that when “your side” is wrong, you come down hard on it/them. I seldom if ever find your opinions to be doctrinaire.

    as you suggest in a later comment, your post didn’t address the wisdom of a suit, only the “academic argument”. the special treatment of the religious plate can quite reasonably be seen as subtle endorsement (or possibly worse in light of an earlier commenter’s observation that the non-fee arguably makes it an optional “official” plate). that opinion may be right or wrong, but to hold it isn’t doctrinaire, so I see no reason (even implicitly) to apologize for it.

    -charles

  12. #12 fusilier
    March 26, 2007

    Both My Beloved and Darling Wife and I are religious fanatics – LCMS and Catholic, respectively – and the first words out of our mouths when we saw these plates was

    “All Others Pay Cash.”

    Everybody knew that was coming, right?
    fusilier
    James 2:24

  13. #13 Dr X
    March 26, 2007

    I noticed one of these plates for the first time this past Saturday. This situation presents an interesting problem because, on the one hand, if license plates are used for the expression of personal views, it would seem a problem to arbitrarily exclude a religious message. But, as Ed points out, not charging for the religious message seems to arbitrarily favor the religious message–something that the government should not be able to do. Yet, charging for the religious message would arguably be a state charge for religious speech.

    This particular fundraising device has always rankled me a bit because the expression of personal opinion is not the purpose of a license plate. Such an option favors the speech of some who can find a plate representing their views versus those who cannot. This misuse of the state’s authority to register motor vehicles is itself the reason we face such a conflict. There is no law against bumper stickers, but state governments have improperly incorporated bumper stickers into license plates.

    One could argue that this is a little like the use of themes and messages on postage stamps, although there is a much wider selection of themes available to stamp buyers. Moreover, postage buyers are charged the same fee whether the stamp contains an implicit message or not.

    Here is one option for the believer who wants to use his or her vehicle to express religious views. Some might see it as tasteless, but it is perfectly legal.

  14. #14 ctw
    March 26, 2007

    “charging for the religious message would arguably be a state charge for religious speech.”

    seems analogous to equal access to fora. as long as restrictions or opportunities are the same for religious and non-religious expression, there shouldn’t be a problem. charging extra for the “religious” plate but not others presumably would be a problem – just as the reverse, ie, the case in point, seems to be.

    I put “religious” in quotes in consideration of the argument that “in god we trust” on the plates is just another instance of “ceremonial deism”. while I consider that a bogus theoretical argument, from a purely practical perspective it just doesn’t seem like a worthwile battle to get it off coins, stop opening prayers, et al. altho those seem like clear endorsements, they are traditions that people – rightly or wrongly – would probably fight hard to maintain. but “new” instances – like the 195? inclusion in the pledge and the license plates – aren’t. again, it may or may not be worth the fight, but the tradition argument certainly doesn’t apply.

    -c

  15. #15 brett
    March 26, 2007

    >> “In Allah we trust”??? “In God we trust”???
    Perhaps im the only one reading this with a theological background, but Allah is the arabic word for God. “In Allah we trust” is just mixing 2 languages together, but says the same thing. Perhaps someone could argue “in Yahweh we trust” so we can also interject the Hebrew word for God as well? Just a quick rundown: Islam is a splinter off of Judiasm. Christianity came from Judiasm. Same God, folks.

    Just an FYI.

    >> “God is an Idiot”
    Im assuming this person is atheistic. If so, why would you even mention God? Isnt that synonymous as saying “Absolutely nothing is an Idiot”?

    >> “In Humanity I Trust”
    Seriously???? Oh, i get it, this is just a joke…

    –Brett

  16. #16 Dr X.
    March 26, 2007

    “seems analogous to equal access to fora. as long as restrictions or opportunities are the same for religious and non-religious expression, there shouldn’t be a problem. charging extra for the “religious” plate but not others presumably would be a problem – just as the reverse, ie, the case in point, seems to be.”

    I think the difference might be that the state actually prints the message on license plates and the choice of messages is limited only to those the state decides to print, as opposed to simply providing equal access to a room or a space.

    I’m not arguing this hard, because I think its an extension of an existing annoyance rather than substantially new territory. Thus, I only say that I feeling rankled a bit by the idea of messages on license plates.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    March 26, 2007

    Brett wrote:

    Perhaps im the only one reading this with a theological background, but Allah is the arabic word for God. “In Allah we trust” is just mixing 2 languages together, but says the same thing. Perhaps someone could argue “in Yahweh we trust” so we can also interject the Hebrew word for God as well? Just a quick rundown: Islam is a splinter off of Judiasm. Christianity came from Judiasm. Same God, folks.

    Which is irrelevant to the point being made. The reality remains that if Indiana had done exactly the same thing but the plates said In Allah We Trust instead, the same people who will undoubtedly think there’s no establishment clause problem in the current situation would be screaming bloody murder about it.

  18. #18 Beth
    March 26, 2007

    Alabama has started offering “God Bless America” plates for free, alongside the standard “Stars Fell On Alabama” plates. You can see the plates here.
    You know, it isn’t all that hard to imagine that a harried clerk at the DMV might hand over one of the religious tags without first asking for the customer’s preference, or that the local DMV office might run out of the standard plates and only have the religious ones available. This worries me, and I don’t know how to go about fighting this.

  19. #19 Michael LoPrete
    March 26, 2007

    Beth,

    Scienceblogs seems to have eaten my original response to you, so please pardon a somewhat truncated version.

    Here in Indiana, it appears that the backers of the new plate are, through the governor’s executive powers, encouraging BMV branches to push the IGWT plate. Rather than treating it as a purely optional plate (which it is advertised as), there are reports that BMV agents will give people the IGWT plate without prompting by the person getting a new plate or that the agent will offer IGWT side-by-side with the standard one, as if they were equivalent.

    The result I fear is that in the next election cycle (08), backers will use the artificially inflated numbers caused by this push to say that Hoosiers REALLY wanted the plates (after all, they’ll say, they were purely voluntary… :-/ ), giving that as a reason to reelect them and also challenging opponents to make (what are perfectly legitimate) attacks on the backers’ claims. Unfortunately, doing so would be playing into the backers’ hands, as they could then label anyone with even a remote objection as “anti-God”

  20. #20 Beth
    March 26, 2007

    Michael, your analysis seems spot-on. It would not surprise me one bit to find out that a similar scenario will play out here in Alabama in ’08.

  21. #21 Bob C
    March 26, 2007

    Perhaps the free offer is an attempt to avoid “excessive entanglement.” But if the godly plates are being promoted as equivalent to standard ones, I see a business opportunity for plate frames reading “all others pay cash.”

  22. #22 Courtney Bane
    March 26, 2007

    I’m an Alabama resident, and I got a new car a few months ago. When I went get a tag for it, the DMV office gave me a standard “Stars Fell on Alabama” plate, and didn’t mention the “God Bless America” plate. There was probably a sample of it up on the wall with all of the other special plates, but I didn’t really look to see. However, I am in Huntsville, which might have been a factor in not having it pushed on me.

  23. #23 Michelle
    March 27, 2007

    Suze said,

    “Doesn’t the extra money for a tag supporting something like the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation actually go at least in part to the charity? If that’s the case, then charging extra for the god plate might be the bigger problem — where would the money go?”

    This was my first thought when I read this post. I would imagine that it would be even more worrisome if the state essentially collected money for a religious organization of some sort. I’m not saying that giving the plates away for free is a good idea either, but I’d much prefer that than having people pay for them in this case, just because of the inevitable mess that would arise if states began directly taking religious collections through their DMVs.

  24. #24 blf
    March 27, 2007

    The World I Destroy is perhaps the most appropriate for a mobile pollution generator.

  25. #25 Robert
    March 27, 2007

    Its not a problem if the extra money goes to a specific church or faith based charity, AND the state lets any religion get its own special plate that costs extra too (with the money going to support similiar charities). Thats about the only way I see to make it fair.

  26. #26 Dave
    March 27, 2007

    I live in Indiana. I recently bought a bumper sticker that says “In God I Doubt” I’ll put it on my car when I get back to Indiana…any bets on how long before my car gets defaced or worse?

    Dave

  27. #27 Michael LoPrete
    March 27, 2007

    Dave,

    I too live in Indiana. I used to live in Indy and had a darwinfish on my old car; while I never suffered defacement, several people were quick to tell me about how high the evidence against evolution was stacking. I’ve moved down to Evansville (where I’m from originally), and have not yet put it on my new car; I’m wondering the same thing as you at the moment.

  28. #28 Dave
    March 27, 2007

    Michael,

    I also acquired a flying spaghetti monster emblem for my ride. I live in Greencastle, I have no doubt that there will be lots of comments. Years ago, in CA, I had an “end apartheid” bumper-sticker that resulted in a keying of my car. So I don’t want to blame Indiana as such, but them xians get mightly riled up around here.

    I’ll see how it goes, I just paid off the car, so….

  29. #29 Michael LoPrete
    March 27, 2007

    Dave,

    The FSM emblem has at least the built-in survival advantage of not being well-known outside its supporters, whereas the darwinfish is a much clearer parody of the ubiquitous jesusfish.

    Incidentally, what high crime and/or misdemeanor did you commit that has forced you into living in Greencastle? Prison term of teaching at DePauw? (I kid!)

  30. #30 ZacharySmith
    March 27, 2007

    Brett –

    You may be correct in that “God” & “Allah” are merely two different words for the same thing, but I think you’d agree that most of the public would take “In Allah We Trust” to be an explicit endorsement of Islam.

    And, as Ed has pointed out, this would cause the Christian right to blow a nut. Suddenly an inocuous and traditional motto would become an affront to all good Christians and an assault on traditional values.

  31. #31 Stephen
    March 28, 2007

    Coming to this a little late, but:

    Perhaps im the only one reading this with a theological background, but Allah is the arabic word for God. “In Allah we trust” is just mixing 2 languages together, but says the same thing. Perhaps someone could argue “in Yahweh we trust” so we can also interject the Hebrew word for God as well? Just a quick rundown: Islam is a splinter off of Judiasm. Christianity came from Judiasm. Same God, folks.

    The central tenet of Christianity is that God had a son who came to earth in human form. The central tenet of Islam is that Allah is the one-and-only; the Koran explicitly states he had no son. They are clearly not the same God by any reasonable standard of logic. Not of course that religious belief in general has much to do with any reasonable standard of logic.

  32. #32 jaybee1962
    April 9, 2007

    I realize I’m way behind the times on this; I’m slow. Just a few words to clarify the IGWT plate issue. The house bill authorizing the plate specifically states it not be considered a specialty plate. With a few exceptions all specialty plates have a $15 administrative fee added (examples of exceptions: DAV, Ex-POW, Pearl Harbor Survivor, etc). In addition the group sponsoring the plate usually adds a fee from $10 to $25. The group is required to post a $6000 bond to guarantee at least 500 plates are sold the first year (plates cost Indiana $12 x 500=$6000). The additional group fee goes to support the group.

    By not charging an administrative fee, the BMV is effectively subsidizing the IGWT message, while charging for people to support their alumni or their preferred charitable organization.

    An interesting note: Specialty plates are only allowed to groups that do not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, etc.

  33. #33 Greg
    April 24, 2007

    Hope this doesn’t get lost, but the ACLU has just filed suit. I read the story (carried by the AP) in the IU paper and online at http://www.indystar.com. I’d like to hear what Ed and others think about the possibilities of the suit.