What’s Okay, And Not Okay, When ‘God’ Shows Up On License Plates

Religiously-themed license plates are generally not an issue in the separation between church and state. But there is one Texas plate that could fall into a gray area.

By David Pitman December 22, 2015 9:30 am, , ,

This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media

A new batch of specialty license plates for Texas drivers is coming in 2016. Among them, one that reads “In God We Trust.” That plate is the fourth state license plate that prominently mentions God.

Back in 2004, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles began selling plates that read “God Bless America” and “God Bless Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past June that license plates are state-sponsored speech. But one constitutional law expert says God-themed plates are not considered a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“Generic references to God that are part of our traditions of government, like ‘God Bless America’ or other invocations, which are not specific towards a sectarian belief system, have been upheld by the Supreme Court as not constituting an establishment of religion,” says Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law.

The new license plate lawmakers approved this past legislative session — “In God We Trust” — is, according to Rhodes, another example of acceptable state speech.

“It’s the same reason we have ‘In God We Trust’ on coins. That’s been upheld by a lot of lower court decisions. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s ceremonial deism again – something that has historically been done in America,” Rhodes said, adding that “In God We Trust” started appearing on U.S. currency during the Civil War.

However, there’s another Texas license plate that Rhodes says gets very close to the line of separation between church and state. It reads “One State Under God” and includes a depiction of the Calvary Mount — the scene where Christians say Jesus was crucified.

Rhodes says that plate might be acceptable, since drivers can choose whether to have it on their cars. However, the state could run into trouble if it later rejected a license plate with a symbol of a different sect — such as Islam or Judaism – because he says that would be an instance of the state preferring one religion over another.

The Department of Motor Vehicles says the three existing plates that prominently mention God have sold a combined total of around 6,300 sets.

The DMV is still waiting on a design and sufficient funding for the new “In God We Trust” plate before it can go on sale.