Mississippi’s license plates will no longer feature the words “In God We Trust” after Gov. Tate Reeves unveiled a new design on Tuesday, featuring a white background with a single white magnolia flower like the one on the state flag at its center.
Reeves asked Mississippians to help design the new license plate in November 2022. The License Tag Commission—which includes the Mississippi governor, commissioner of revenue, state treasurer and attorney general—selected the winning design from more than 400 submissions. Reeves said the winner of the contest and the designer of the new plate is Leah Frances Eaton of Starkville, Miss.
“We had so many fantastic designs submitted that it was really tough to pick only one winner,” the governor said in a statement Tuesday. “The clear talent and creativity of Mississippians was well on display. We are excited to announce the new design and hope that drivers can enjoy showcasing it on road trips both near and far.”
Since 2019, Mississippi license plates have featured an off-center image of the Mississippi State Seal, which includes the words “In God We Trust.” Former Gov. Phil Bryant said in 2015 that adding “In God We Trust” to the state seal “professed our understanding of a higher power over the affairs of men.”
In June 2021, though, the Washington D.C.-based organization American Atheists and three Mississippi plaintiffs sued the State over the license plates, arguing that requiring nonreligious residents to display the words “In God We Trust” or pay a fee for an alternative tag violated their rights.
Reeves offered a defiant response in social media posts that same day.
“I know Mississippi’s values are our strength…and I meant it when I said as Governor I would defend our values every single day!” he tweeted. “I will defend ‘In God We Trust’ on our tag, on our flag, and on our state seal….Every. Single. Day.”
I know Mississippi’s values are our strength…and I meant it when I said as Governor I would defend our values every single day!
I will defend “In God We Trust” on our tag, on our flag, and on our state seal….Every. Single. Day. pic.twitter.com/6kYoKOZ7F6
— Governor Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) June 22, 2021
In federal court, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office argued that the “In God We Trust” license plates do not violate the rights of nonreligious Mississippians because they can use decals to cover up the offending words on the plates. The plaintiffs claimed that doing so would violate State law that prohibits doing anything that “covers or obstructs any portion of a license tag.”
In a March 2, 2023, order, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi Carlton W. Reeves showed sympathy to the plaintiff’s arguments but agreed in a March 2, 2023, order that the remedy would be to allow the plaintiffs to cover up the offending words.
“The Plaintiffs say that is cold comfort because over-zealous police officers and sheriff’s deputies will pull them over for obscuring ‘In God We Trust.’ Yes. That is an unavoidable risk. At the same time, a person subjected to such treatment is likely to prevail in his or her ensuing § 1983 lawsuit alleging a deprivation of constitutional rights,” he wrote.
Judge Reeves (no relation to Gov. Reeves) cited a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case, Wooley v. Maynard, in which the court decided a group of Jehova’s Witnesses who faced fines for covering up the New Hampshire State motto “Live Free Or Die” had the right to do so.
Asked for comment from the governor’s office on the decision to choose a new tag without “In God We Trust” on it Tuesday, Gov. Reeves’ Communications Director Hunter Estes sent the following statement: “This was a statewide contest open to all Mississippians for submissions. We received hundreds of incredible designs that showcased the impressive talent of Mississippians. This design was the winner that was ultimately selected from those submissions.” The statement did not mention the absence of “In God We Trust.”
The Mississippi Free Press also contacted the Mississippi Department of Revenue on Tuesday to ask about the decision to choose a new tag without “In God We Trust” on it and whether the lawsuit had anything to do with it.
“I don’t think we have a reason why, that’s the design that was submitted,” department spokesperson Lexus Burns told the Mississippi Free Press. She said she would inquire further with officials in the department, but the department has not followed up as of press time Wednesday.
The State will begin issuing the new license plates in January 2024.