Mississippi’s Republican second-term state treasurer Lynn Fitch, announces at a Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 news conference at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., that she is running for attorney general because she wants to protect gun rights, fight opioid abuse and crack down on human trafficking, Fitch of Ridgeland is traveling the state this week to discuss her candidacy for the state’s top legal job.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch and several fellow Republicans running for statewide office are banking on controversy over the state’s new license plates to shore up conservative support in competitive primary elections.

“In Mississippi, we trust God. We put it in our state seal,” Fitch, who is running for attorney general this year, wrote in a May 23 fundraising letter that voters in the Jackson metro area received. “I voted to put that seal on our car tags. Because I did, atheist activists are threatening to sue Mississippi.”

Fitch continued: “I wish I could say this is the first time that liberal outsiders have tried to tell us in Mississippi that they know better than we do. But, it’s not. We pass bill after bill on issues that matter to Mississippians, like life and religious liberty, and they swoop in and take us to court to tell us our values just aren’t right. As your attorney general, I will fight to protect our laws and to defend the will of our people.”

Potential legal drama over the license plate is front-and-center in recent campaign ads and fundraising materials from Fitch as well as her GOP opponent, state Rep. Mark Baker, and governor candidate, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

The new license plates, championed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and criticized broadly by Mississippians who dislike its color and off-center lettering, features the state’s seal that reads “In God We Trust.” Bryant and other conservative leaders pushed the redesign of the state seal in 2014 to include the term.

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

The new car tag is the default design, meaning it’s the only plate that doesn’t require an additional fee to purchase. The “In God We Trust” phrase and its placement on the standard car tags could land Mississippi back in federal court.

In April, the Washington, D.C.,-based American Humanist Association wrote a letter to state officials, threatening to sue the state. Their argument is that some Mississippians either don’t believe in God or find the message offensive. The group also claims 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.

Fitch, who sits on the four-person license tag commission and sent a proxy to approve the new design on her behalf, is one of several Republicans running for statewide office who have made the license plate and the out-of-state legal threats a 2019 election issue.

Baker first mentioned the controversy on June 5, listing among his top concerns in a fundraising email: “Fight to keep ‘In God We Trust’ on our state license plates and in our state seal.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the GOP’s frontrunner for governor, purchased television airtime on June 9 across the state to show his 30-second ad called “In God We Trust,” which focuses on the license plate.

“Mississippi has a brand new license plate, but the out-of-state liberals hate it,” Reeves says in the 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.”

The license tags have been a hot topic of conversation across the state, and not just because of the state seal and its religious language. Mississippians have gotten creative in their references to the color of the tag and its off-center design.

The off-center design “gives me a migraine,” one social media user wrote. Another took issue with the “incredibly boring” seal itself. And someone else called its background “the color of dust.”

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.

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

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.