Don’t Judge Me by My License Tag

Perhaps I don’t really have a dog in this fight. As the battle over the words “In God We Trust” on the new Tennessee license plates rages, no one has shaken an angry fist or even raised an eyebrow—as far as I know–about the Friends of the Smokies tag on the back of my car. I’ve had it for years, happy to pay extra to help preserve and protect our national park.

Other specialty plates have tempted me: Save Our Civil War Battlefields. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Watchable Wildlife. Elvis Presley. Tennessee State Parks. Helping Schools. Pat Summit. Spay and Neuter Your Pets. Share the Road with Bicycles. Tennessee Tech.

The new standard-issue plate is tempting me, too. I love the design. It’s navy blue with white numbers and letters and, between the screw holes, the outline of the state surrounding the word TENNESSEE. In the upper left corner are the words THE VOLUNTEER STATE. The county name, as usual, is bottom center, with TNVACATION.COM above it. My favorite part is the circle outlined in red with three white stars–representing the three grand divisions of the state–inside it, just like the state flag.

Here’s where the controversy comes in. Some license plates have nothing written on the outside of that circle. Others have the words IN GOD WE TRUST. State law allows vehicle owners to choose which of the two tags they want, although those ordering online or through car dealerships don’t necessarily know that.

On social media, in face-to-face conversations and on editorial pages in this and other newspapers, some of those who favor the Trust God option have opined that those who make the “wrong” choice are playing with fire. “How sad that we would even offer a choice,” one person wrote on Facebook. “I wish ALL Tennessee plates had ‘In God We Trust’ on them!” Another wrote, “This world is getting sicker every day. So we’ve got a choice now between believing and not believing in God?”

Hold it right there, I say.

Choosing a license plate with or without the words “In God We Trust” is not a reliable indicator of who is or isn’t a believer or who does or doesn’t trust God. Some folks, including me, prefer not to broadcast our faith or lack of it from the rear end of our cars.

Others, and I’m one of these, too, believe with all our hearts that the government shouldn’t get mixed up in religion. The Bill of Rights, perhaps the most sacred part of our sacred U.S. Constitution, begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The incorporation clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extends that edict to state and local governments. Meaning that, in the United States of America, government is not supposed to sanction religious messages. That seems simple and obvious. Yeah…but the phrase “In God We Trust” is on our money and on police cars and in giant letters of all four sides of many a county courthouse, including the one in Putnam County, Tennessee. What about that?

To my way of thinking, all those examples violate both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment.

I suppose I should be grateful that the Tennessee General Assembly gave citizens a choice as to whether they want God mentioned on their license plates. Putnam County Clerk Wayne Nabors told me that everyone who comes to his office in person to pick up a new tag is asked which one they want. So far, he said, about 90 per cent are choosing “In God We Trust.”

Not me, though. When October rolls around and it’s time to renew my plate, I’ll stick with the Great Smoky Mountains. And let my faith remain my own business.

(January 29, 2022)