The story behind the dirt-colored, off-center, Canadian-made car tag that could land Mississippi back in federal court

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Robert Matlock takes a look at his new license plate after purchasing it at the Hinds County Tax Collector’s office on President Street in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

As a part-time Uber driver, D’Kerio McGhee spends more hours on the road than the average Mississippian, meaning he has had more time to develop opinions about Mississippi’s new car tag, introduced in January.

“It’s ugly. Ugly, ugly, very ugly,” McGhee said.

“Most of my friends say they’re getting an Ole Miss tag,” McGhee said of one of the state’s specialty tags, clarifying that most of those friends are neither fans nor alumni of the school. “They’d just rather put anything on their car but that.”

In recent years, Mississippi’s elected officials have championed several polarizing issues, from a 2016 so-called religious freedom bill that critics called anti-LGBTQ to a litany of anti-abortion efforts.

But one of the most surprising controversies erupted on social media last May, when Gov. Phil Bryant unveiled the new design for Mississippi’s default license tag — the only tag available to Mississippi drivers without an extra fee.

Like McGhee, many users took issue with the plate’s design. The state seal, placed just off-center, “gives me a migraine” one user wrote. Another took issue with the “incredibly boring” seal itself. And someone else called its background “the color of dust.”

But most talked about, among those who loved and hated it, was the nod to Christianity in the seal’s inscription, which reads “In God We Trust.”

“It’s the Mike Pence of license tags,” one user tweeted, referring to the pious U.S. vice president.

Mississippi began issuing car tags featuring the state seal, which bears the inscription, “In God We Trust,” in early 2019.

And that inscription is why, like the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ laws, this plate could once again land Mississippi in federal court over a constitutional question.

Last month, the Washington, D.C.,-based American Humanist Association wrote a letter to state officials, threatening to sue the state over the “In God We Trust” tag. Their argument is that some Mississippians either don’t believe in God or find the message offensive. And the state can’t constitutionally force someone to choose between displaying that message on their personal property and forking over cash for a plate that doesn’t have it, the group claims.

“The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to mean that not only do you have the right to say what you want but you also have the right to not say a state-sponsored message you don’t agree with,” said Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association.

However, there is a different view of Supreme Court precedent. Two weeks after the humanist group sent its letter to Bryant, the conservative Texas-based First Liberty Institute wrote to state officials, arguing that the plate is constitutional. “The Supreme Court has consistently indicated that the national motto plainly does not advance religion, serves a secular purpose of promoting patriotism, and is simply a reference to our religious heritage,” the group wrote.

Now the state has two options — defend their plate in court or offer a second no-fee tag design. Both have the potential to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“It could have been done a lot better in a lot of ways,” said Dave Stratton, president of the American License Plate Collectors Association, Magnolia Region, and a plate collector for over 60 years. “It’s hard to understand why it wasn’t.”

Private property

Of course, the “In God We Trust” plate is hardly the first Mississippi license tag to drive some Mississippians crazy.

Most recent was the tag currently being phased out, a blue-on-white depiction of B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille. Although well-regarded today, King’s fans initially argued that the tribute to Mississippi’s musical heritage failed to accurately depict Lucille, which is black. Before that came a lighthouse-themed plate, backlit against a gold and purple sunset and intended as a post-Hurricane Katrina tribute to the Gulf Coast and Biloxi lighthouse.

The 2002 Mississippi license plate, also known as the “fried egg plate,” was the third to display a magnolia, the state flower.

 

“Some people in the north of the state didn’t realize we had any lighthouses in Mississippi. People on the coast looked at it and said, ‘Those are LSU colors,’” said Kathy Waterbury, who has worked at the Department of Revenue, the agency responsible for registering vehicles, for over 40 years.

But even worse, Waterbury said, was the so-called fried egg tag. Issued in 2002, it featured a yellow and white drawing of a magnolia, Mississippi’s state flower.

“But if you stood about 15 feet back, it did look like a fried egg,” Waterbury said.

None however, has been quite as controversial as Mississippi’s newest plate.

Bryant’s Facebook post from May of last year unveiling the tag received more than 2,700 comments. Only four other posts since he became governor have received more online reactions. A post thanking President Donald Trump for attending the ribbon cutting of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in late 2017 received less than half that. A February appearance on “Fox and Friends” to tout Mississippi’s most recent abortion ban got even fewer.

“People take plate design very personally,” said Stratton who owns every version of Mississippi’s car tag, dating back to 1919.

The U.S. Supreme Court also seems serious about what states put on their license plates. In 1978, the high court said New Hampshire could not order residents to display license plates with the state’s motto — “Live Free or Die” — after a Jehovah’s Witness argued the message went against his religion and personal beliefs, telling the court, “I believe that life is more precious than freedom.”

“So it’s freedom of speech and it’s freedom of religion,” said Miller, the attorney for the humanist association.

“The Supreme Court has made clear that the state can’t force you to say something on your car, which is your private property, that you don’t agree with.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Hinds County Tax Collector’s office on President Street in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

To understand just how personal license tags are to drivers, one need only look at the number of specialty tags available in the state — over 200 — and the number of people who have one.

About 400,000 specialty tags adorn Mississippians’ cars, even though the cost of such a distinction runs from $33 to $53. This is nearly 20 percent of the 2 million personal vehicles on the road.

And the numbers are rising. Between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2019, the first three months of the “In God We Trust” tag’s life, Mississippi drivers registered 75,791 specialty tags, an 11 percent increase over the same time period in 2018.

Clay County Tax Collector Paige Lamkin agreed that specialty tag numbers are up in her county. But what’s offending residents, she said, is not the tag’s message.

“We’ve had people coming in saying ‘They look dirty,'”Lamkin said. “They just do not like that color at all.”

‘Here’s the design’

Technically speaking, Mississippi already violated its own law by issuing the new tag in 2019. This is because state code requires the Department of Revenue to issue a new tag design at least every five years. The “fried egg” plate debuted in October 2002, the lighthouse in 2007 and Lucille in 2012.

This means the default tag was due for a makeover in 2017. But as the year came and went, Waldale, the Nova Scotia-based plant that has manufactured Mississippi’s car tags for decades, continued shipping Lucille plates to its southernmost client.

Mississippi’s 2012 license plate, the second collaboration between Barbour and the MDA, featured B.B. King’s guitar “Lucille” and promoted the state’s musical history

Coincidentally, 2017 also saw Mississippi celebrate its bicentennial. Commemorative bicentennial tags are common — neighboring Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana each issued one — and in 2015 Bryant’s office began working with the Mississippi Development Authority on a commemorative design.

The development authority tapped its designer, Lucy Hetrick, who designed the Lucille plate, to make a bicentennial prototype. The agency then presented the package, which included companion “Welcome to Bicentennial Mississippi” road signs, to the governor.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Malcolm White, former director of the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 in Jackson, Miss.

“He really liked it,” said Malcolm White, who headed tourism for the state at the time. “And then, honestly, from there nothing really happened.”

Whether the governor seriously considered using the designs is unknown. His office declined to respond to multiple interview requests from Mississippi Today. But Waterbury, who said she was unaware of any plans for a 2017 tag, said the Department of Revenue had a simple issue for waiting nearly two years to design a new tag.

“We had a budget issue,” Waterbury said. “It costs a lot of money to issue new plates.”

Although the Department of Revenue issues new car tags every time a driver buys a new car, the first year of a new design is particularly expensive because the department has to reissue every default tag on the road — about 2.4 million vehicles — fronting $2.07 for every tag. In addition to kicking off Mississippi’s bicentennial, fiscal year 2017 ushered in an unexpected budget shortfall and sweeping statewide budget cuts.

“It feels like a missed opportunity,” Stratton said about the bicentennial plates. “It would have been a nice way for the state to promote itself.”

In Mississippi, tourism and license tag design have been intertwined, off and on, for four decades. The trend started in 1976 when Mississippi issued a tag featuring a magnolia and bearing one of the state’s nicknames, “The Hospitality State.”

“Think about that. Here we are at a time that Mississippi was trying to improve its image after the Civil Rights period and come into the New South, and I think it was seen as a good way to do that,” Stratton said.

That design won the American License Plate Collectors’ plate-of-the-year award. The next few decades saw minimal graphics and the resurgence of the magnolia — regular and “fried.” But it was former Gov. Haley Barbour who seized the idea of using themed plates to promote the state, collaborating with the Mississippi Development Authority on the 2007 lighthouse design and the 2012 Lucille plate. Created a few years after the state started marketing its Blues Trail, the Lucille plate, bears the corresponding slogan, “Birthplace of America’s Music.”

“Haley Barbour has been in politics since he was 17 years old, going back literally to the Nixon campaign, and he knows and he understands messaging and he understands branding and he understands the consciousness that can come from a visual message. So it was very important to him that we get it right,” said Paul Hurst, Barbour’s former chief of staff. “And I think Gov. Bryant was motivated by the same desire.”

Mississippi’s 2007 tag, the first collaboration between former Gov. Barbour and MDA, was meant as a tribute to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

In contrast to Barbour, Bryant’s office did not work with the Mississippi Development Authority on a design for what became the current tag, Melissa Scallan, a spokesperson for the agency, told Mississippi Today. Instead, Bryant’s administration suggested a state seal design, which the Department of Revenue asked Waldale, the Canadian tag manufacturer, to produce.

Two sources with knowledge of the process told Mississippi Today that within the halls of the governor’s office three other designs were initially considered — the Capitol dome, a steamboat and a bridge. Each was thrown out. In spring 2018, the Department of Revenue unveiled Waldale’s state-seal design before the state’s license tag commission, the final step in the plate design process. Although the commission, made up of one representative each from the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the state treasurer’s office as well as the Department of Revenue, had no say in the design before this point, all four members approved it unanimously.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Tawanza Ratliff buys her license plate at the Hinds County Tax Collector’s office on President Street in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

“It was one vote, ‘Here’s the design. Yea or nay?’” said Michelle Williams, chief of staff for the state treasurer, who attended the meeting. “There was no ‘OK, should we do a seal? Should we not do a seal? Should we use this color or not use this color?'”

Williams said the design seemed very uncontroversial at the time, and no one in the governor’s office called attention to the fact that it read, “In God We Trust.”

“I don’t remember us ever thinking of it,” Williams said.

However, when presenting the license tag to the state soon after, the first thing that Bryant highlighted was its religious message.

“I was proud to sign legislation in 2014 that added the United States National Motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ to the Mississippi State Seal. Today, I am equally delighted to announce that it will adorn our new Mississippi license plates,” Bryant wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, a license plate’s purpose is not to be beautiful or a conversation piece. It’s to make a car easily identifiable by law enforcement. And according to the Department of Revenue, the current tag design does this.

“You want those numbers to pop, so law enforcement can read them,” Waterbury said.

“Once we decided we were going with the state seal, this is the design that worked,” she said.

‘It’s going to look good on every car’

In the spring of 2014, the Mississippi Legislature considered a so-called religious freedom bill that opponents said would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. After the bill met fierce blowback, a watered down version that mirrored existing federal law emerged.

That bill, which Bryant signed, also added “In God We Trust” to Mississippi’s state seal.

In a May 14 appearance on American Family Radio, Bryant expressed confusion over all the anger and resentment directed at a design he noted was “just the state seal.” Lamenting some news media reports, he noted that Mississippi was far from the first state to incorporate “In God We Trust” into a car tag.

“One of (these reporters) said, oh you know, ‘This is an invitation to a lawsuit.’ Well if it is, you’re going to have to sue Alaska and Indiana and Virginia and Wisconsin, which are among the group of 19 other states — we would be the 20th state — to use the slogan ‘In God We Trust’ (on a tag),” Bryant said.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Gov. Phil Bryant speaking in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.

Although Bryant is right, Mississippi is the first state to put “In God We Trust” on its default tag.

Since “In God We Trust” became the U.S. motto in 1956, the courts have repeatedly ruled that the government has the right to display the expression on government property, such as in schools or dollar bills. Whether that right extends to a citizen’s personal property is less clear, but this case, if it goes to court, could test it.

Bryant, for his part, seems pleased with all aspects of the “In God We Trust” tag. In that same American Family Radio appearance, he told host Tim Wildmon: “I’m proud of it. It’s a beautiful tag. It’s going to look good on every car in the state of Mississippi.”

The American Humanist Association originally gave Mississippi until May 4 to issue an alternative non-theistic license tag or risk going to court. As of last week, the Department of Revenue said the state had not yet decided which course it would take, and the American Humanist Association said it is discussing the potential of litigation.

“If it winds up in court for a redesign it will be history for us (collectors),” Stratton said. “But if it costs a lot of money, God help them for putting God in that position.”