Church-state separation is a battleground fiercely fought over in the US. The latest tussle has involved official state license plates in Mississippi.
The phrase “In God We Trust” was first included on US coins in the 1860s in order to “relieve [the U.S.] from the ignominy of heathenism,” according to Treasury Department records. As such, it is a phrase that rankles with many nonreligious people, and is often a subject of contention for those interested in maintaining church-state separation.
American Atheists have notched up a legal success in matters of church-state separation recently when Mississippi’s redesigned official state license plates were unveiled. A magnolia in a blue circle will now replace the statement “In God We Trust,” a declaration that has only been in place itself on the plates since 2019.
American Atheists (AA) filed a lawsuit in June 2021 on behalf of the Mississippi Humanist Association and three nonreligious Mississippi residents. The suit accused Mississippi officials of violating nonreligious people’s freedoms of speech and religion by forcing them to display “In God We Trust” on their personal vehicles.
In the state revealing their new design on May 2nd this year, American Atheists then withdrew their federal lawsuit.
The state actually went over and above what the lawsuit was asking for. “Mississippi officials did exactly what we wanted—and more. We had simply asked that they make a free alternative license plate available for nonreligious Mississippians. But they went the extra mile and completely removed ‘In God We Trust’ from the upcoming 2024 design,” said Geoffrey T. Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists. “Governor Reeves made the right decision and respected all Mississippians’ beliefs and rights with this new license plate. Mississippians will no longer be forced to act as billboards for the state’s preferred Christian message. This is a victory for free speech and religious freedom.”
There are claims that this move was not in response to the lawsuit and that Mississippi changes its plate design every five years, partly to identify drivers who have not paid their annual taxes. That said, it is rather a coincidental change. The case may have prompted the November 2022 open competition to redesign the tag.
NationalMotto.org is a project set up by AA to combat a creeping sense of blurring between church and state regarding the phrase in question. They say the following:
This motto had nothing to do with our nation’s origin and didn’t appear on coinage until almost 100 years after independence. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “In God We Trust” was first put on coins in 1864 at the urging of Reverend Mark Watkinson of Pennsylvania, largely “because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War.”
“In God We Trust” has always been about injecting Christianity into the public sphere and about excluding non-Christians. When Rev. Watkinson proposed the language to then-Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in an 1861 letter, he argued that the “In God We Trust” inscription “would relieve [the U.S.] from the ignominy of heathenism.” Chase apparently agreed.
In 1955, nearly a century later, President Eisenhower declared, “Without God, there could be no American form of Government, nor an American way of life. Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first—the most basic—expression of Americanism.” The following year, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution “declaring In God We Trust the national motto of the United States” in order to differentiate the U.S. from the “godless” Soviets. The resolution was adopted without debate and without any dissenting votes in either the House or the Senate.
Indeed, Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, feels strongly about the phrase. “‘In God We Trust’ is a stain on our country’s history. For too long, politicians have used this religious message to portray non-Christians as insufficiently American,” he said. “We are pleased that Governor Tate Reeves has seen the error of his ways and has discontinued the use of ‘In God We Trust’ on Mississippi license plates. The new magnolia-themed design is inclusive of all Mississippians—whether Christian, nonreligious, or a religious minority. This is a step in the right direction for Mississippi.”