Here is my question for Christians who supported Colorado’s new “In God We Trust” license plate: Is your God so puny that he needs formal endorsement by the state of Colorado? I thought the idea was “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The obvious practical problem is that government cannot justly or constitutionally favor one religion over another. John Priecko, who championed the relevant bill, described the license plate as “an outreach and ministry tool”—a way to promote his particular religious beliefs.
True, people of many different religions trust in a God, although God looks rather different for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Perhaps some Muslims would prefer a more-specific plate saying “In Allah We Trust” or “Allahu Akbar.” Is the state going to allow that?
So is Colorado also going to allow plates with messages such as “In Gods We Trust,” “In Vishnu We Trust,” “Follow the Buddha,” “Satan Rules,” “Darwin Was Right,” and “In Reason We Trust”? If not, the state is flagrantly discriminating against people who hold unusual religious beliefs (for our region) or atheistic beliefs.
Those legislators who voted for the license-plate bill, along with Governor Polis, who signed it, are practically begging for lawsuits claiming religious discrimination and unequal treatment under the law. Apparently Governor Polis and others who supported the bill preferred to kick the legal can to the courts and avoid controversy themselves.
Is this a big deal? What really is going to change if some Coloradans drive around with license plates that say “In God We Trust”? But critics cannot have it both ways. If it’s no big deal if some people drive around with these plates, then it’s also no big deal if they don’t.
But it is a big deal, I think, that the state of Colorado gives its official sanction to the ideology of some but not others. Coloradans deserve equal treatment under the law. And the slope is somewhat slippery: In principle, a government that can favor some religious messages over others also can favor some religious practices over others. The courts can rule otherwise only arbitrarily.
But, you may say, Colorado also “offers 50 ‘special group’ license plates, with themes ranging from ‘Italian American Heritage’ to supporting pollinators, foster families, Pueblo chiles and the troops—all individually authorized by the state’s lawmakers,” as CPR reports. What’s so different about the God plate?
A plate celebrating Italian heritage or pollinators does not sanction a particular religious ideology the way that the God plate does. Again, if the aim is to have a proliferation of plates to express everyone’s views, then we should also accommodate Muslims, Hindus, Satanists, and so on. Obviously the aim of the supporters of the God plate is not to foster free expression but to promote the expression of certain religious beliefs over others.
Trusting in government
Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird, who supported the bill, told CPR, “I will just say that many of us believe in free speech, freedom of expression and to display our national motto should be a no-brainer for us here in Colorado.” But Bird’s commitment to “freedom of expression” did not extend to other religious views and to nonreligious views. You don’t have “freedom of expression” if the the state forces you to choose from a menu offering only one ideological point of view.
Contra Bird’s nonsense, the right to freedom of speech does not mean that government must help you say what you want. It means that government may not forcibly prevent you from saying what you want (so long as you do not violate the rights of others). So, for example, government may not prevent you from attaching a license plate holder or bumper sticker or the like to your car saying, “In God We Trust,” “God Is Dead,” “Witches Rule,” or whatever you want. Those who pretend not to see the difference between state-sanctioned speech and free speech are no friends of liberty.
Even though one possibility consistent with equality before the law is to further expand the messages allowed on plates, I don’t think the state should be in the business of endorsing messages of any kind. That’s just not a proper function of government. License plates should identify cars, and that’s it. But, it seems, that car has cruised.
What about the fact that Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as a motto in 1956 as a replacement for “E pluribus unum”? My position is that the religious motto flagrantly violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, whether the courts care to understand plain English or not.
But let me address Christians who might find it convenient in this case to ignore constitutional arguments. As political scientist D. Jason Berggren writes, “Some defenders of the motto justify it on the ground that it is a form of what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has called ‘ceremonial deism,’ that through constant repetition has largely lost is religious content.” Berggren quotes one federal judge, “The national motto is excluded from First Amendment significance because the motto ‘has no theological or ritualistic impact’ and is of a purely secular, ‘patriotic’ and ‘ceremonial character.'”
In other words, “In God We Trust” as an official government statement is Constitutional only insofar as it doesn’t actually mean that we trust in God. Is that really the message that Christians wish to convey?
But the messaging problem gets worse. By supporting the God plate, Christians bring their God down to the level of special-interest politics. These Christians are, in effect, declaring that their God is so impressive that he gets the official endorsement of the likes of Shannon Bird, Jared Polis, and Mark Baisley (the bill’s sponsor).
It seems to me that people who actually trusted in God would not instead trust politicians to help them with their religious outreach.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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