Mississippi’s standard license plates violate First Amendment freedoms for atheists and non-Christians by requiring drivers to display the words “In God We Trust” or pay a fee for an alternative design, a group of atheists said in a federal court filing today.

“Wherever I use my trailer, I am forced to profess a religious idea that I do not believe,” plaintiff Jason Alan Griggs said in a statement for American Atheists, a national organization that promotes separation of church and state. “Imagine a Christian having to drive around with ‘In God We Trust’ or ‘In Allah We Trust.’”

Griggs is one of three Mississippi plaintiffs who own and operate vehicles named in the lawsuit alongside American Atheists Inc. and the Mississippi Humanist Association. Ocean Springs attorney Dianne Herman Ellis filed the complaint in the United States District Court for the South District of Mississippi in Jackson.

“Mississippi car owners should not be punished with higher fees for refusing to promote an exclusionary and divisive message,” Ellis said in today’s statement. “They are entitled to an alternative.”

The plaintiffs want the state to offer alternative plate designs free of charge for anyone with religious objections.

‘This Phrase Signals Mississippi’s Allegiance to God’

In January 2014, then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced that he wanted to change the state seal to include the words, “In God We Trust.”

“I continue to believe this is the right time to stand for our beliefs—our faith, our families and our nation. To strengthen our resolve, I have asked that we take a bold step for God and country. I have called on Senator Michael Watson to introduce legislation that would change the wording on the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi to reflect our nation’s motto,” Bryant said in his State of the State address that year.

Watson proposed the change that year as an attachment to Senate Bill 2681, the controversial Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“This phrase signals Mississippi’s allegiance to God as well as our country,” Watson, a Republican who is now the Mississippi secretary of state, told Magee News in 2014. Earlier this year, Watson told a group of Christians at a prayer event that he believes “we need Christian men and women in office today more than ever before.”

In 2014, S.B. 2681 drew criticism from Democrats because of provisions that opponents believed targeted LGBTQ people for legalized discrimination. But today’s lawsuit notes that Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat, said the “In God We Trust” amendment “made it very difficult for some of the members” who opposed the rest of the bill to cast a vote against it.

“Because it’s very hard to go to your district and explain why you voted against God,” the lawsuit quotes Frazier saying.

“The people of Mississippi, Black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center,” Gov. Reeves said in a June 2020 signing ceremony for the new state flag which includes the words “In God We Trust.” Photo courtesy Tate Reeves

Then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who was president of the Senate, praised the chamber for passing the bill, saying in a Jan. 31, 2014, Facebook post that “Mississippians have a strong faith in God.”

Four years later, Bryant announced that the Mississippi seal with the words “In God We Trust” would soon appear on license plates. The State of Mississippi began issuing the license plates to drivers in January 2019. During his campaign for governor that year, Reeves used the design to promote his candidacy.

“Mississippi has a brand new license plate, but out-of-state liberals hate it,” Reeves said in a June 2019 campaign ad. “It’s because of these four words: ‘In God We Trust.’ The liberals from California and Washington are threatening to take Mississippi to court just because of this license plate. I know Mississippi’s values are Mississippi’s strength. Our next governor must defend our values every single day.”

A year later, on June 30, 2020, Gov. Reeves signed into law a bill retiring Mississippi’s Confederate-themed 1894 state flag. Conservative lawmakers had agreed to do so in exchange for a guarantee that the new state flag design would also include the words, “In God We Trust.”

“We are all Mississippians, and we must all come together. What better way to do that than include ‘In God We Trust’ on our new state banner,” Reeves said in remarks that day. “As lieutenant governor, I fought to put those words on our state seal. We were attacked, threatened, and ultimately we were sued. I know the same forces will come after us again, and I know this is a stronger line to hold. The people of Mississippi, Black and white, and young and old, can be proud of a banner that puts our faith front and center.”

‘Atheists Are Forced to Act As Billboards’

Today’s lawsuit, which names Mississippi Commissioner of Revenue Chris Graham as the defendant, notes that the plaintiffs are not “challenging the national motto” nor the state seal itself.

“This is an action challenging the statutes, rules, policies, practices and customs enforced by Defendant Chris Graham, as the Commissioner of Revenue, that together require Mississippi’s nonreligious drivers to display the government’s preferred ideological, religious message on their vehicles or, if they refuse to do so, pay higher fees to legally drive their vehicles,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit notes that one of the plaintiffs, Brandon resident Derenda Hancock, “describes herself as a radical atheist” who believes she should not “have the government insist that she display a religious message on her vehicle that violates her right to be free from religion.” She owns and drives two cars, the complaint says.

“I don’t want Jesus riding on my car,” the lawsuit recounts her telling a tag agent when she sought an alternative tag for her car in January 2019. With no free alternative, she paid $32 for a specialty “Mississippi Blues Trail” license plate and did the same again in 2020. With a newer car this year, she will have to pay $64, the complaint says.

The American Atheists statement says that the phrase “In God We Trust” is “rooted in a deep hostility toward atheists and members of minority groups” and that Congress enacted it as the national motto in 1955 “in order to differentiate the United States from the ‘godless’ Soviets.”

“Every minute they spend on the streets of Mississippi, atheists are forced to act as a billboard for the state’s religious message,” American Atheists litigation counsel Geoffrey T. Blackwell said in today’s statement. “Some can avoid being a mouthpiece for the government by paying a penalty. For many others, even that isn’t possible. Atheists with a disability or a special category of vehicle are stuck proclaiming a belief in the Christian god. It’s an abuse of power and unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit says that forcing plaintiffs to either display an “explicitly religious message” or pay a penalty requires them to “engage in an activity that violates their sincerely held beliefs and coerce(s) them to engage in religious exercise to which they object.”

Sue Moss, a member of the Mississippi Humanist Association, said in the statement that, as a Mississippian with a permanent disability, “there is just no alternative” but to promote a message she does not believe in.

“No matter how much Gov. Reeves or any other politicians want to pretend that Mississippi is some kind of Christians-only club, it doesn’t make it true,” American Atheists President Nick Fish said in today’s statement. “Forcing atheist drivers to endorse a religious message they reject is antithetical to our values as Americans and unconstitutional, plain and simple.”

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].