Politics & Government

Your next NC license plate could say 'In God We Trust'

This is a prototype of the proposed national/state motto license plate. If the General Assembly approves, the plate would be one of three basic license plates offered in North Carolina, along with the First in Flight and First in Freedom versions on vehicles now.
This is a prototype of the proposed national/state motto license plate. If the General Assembly approves, the plate would be one of three basic license plates offered in North Carolina, along with the First in Flight and First in Freedom versions on vehicles now.

Some state legislators want to give you the option of having a license plate that bears the phrase “In God We Trust.”

They have proposed creating a “national/state mottos” license plate that would be a free, third option, after the First in Freedom plate and the long-standing First in Flight one. The plate would have the national motto, In God We Trust, at the top and an English translation of the state’s motto, Esse quam videri – “To Be Rather Than To Seem” – at the bottom.

Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville, says he introduced the bill because several other states offer a plate with the national motto and he thinks many North Carolinians would like to have the option.

Still, Jones expects there will be opposition.

“Some are opposed to anything that mentions God, including the national motto, even if the plate is just an option,” he wrote in an email.

Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union is not pleased with another Jones bill that would require that “In God We Trust” and “To Be Rather Than To Seem” be posted in a prominent place in all North Carolina public schools. Spokesman Mike Meno said the reference to trusting God would send a message to students with different religious views, or none at all, that “they are second-class or not welcome.”

But the ACLU isn’t making a fuss about the proposed license plate that bear the same words, at least not yet. Meno said the organization is still studying the bill’s language and will follow its progress through the General Assembly.

"We've argued in court that choosing a custom license plate is a form of free speech that the government should not make available only to people with one set of beliefs," Meno wrote in an email. "If lawmakers move forward with creating this plate, we hope they will also support the creation of other plates that express the views of people with different religious beliefs."

Jones' bill, House Bill 964, was referred to the House Transportation Committee, where two of the bill’s four primary sponsors, Rep. Phil Shepard of Jacksonville and Rep. John Torbett of Stanley in Gaston County, are chairmen. Jones said he’s not expecting anyone to offer a companion or competing bill in the Senate.

North Carolina drivers can already get In God We Trust on one of the 201 specialty plates that cost extra and often support various causes and institutions.

In 2004, with the U.S. at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the General Assembly authorized the Division of Motor Vehicles to offer a plate bearing the motto and a yellow ribbon for an extra fee, with most of the proceeds going to the N.C. National Guard Soldiers and Airmen Assistance Fund.

The DMV sells about 4,000 of the plates a year, at $60 a piece or twice the fee for a standard plate. Twenty dollars of that goes to the National Guard fund, said its director, Dennis Roach. The $80,000 the plate generates each year accounts for about a third of the fund’s budget, which goes toward a variety of programs to help members of the Guard and their families.

Roach said the plate was redesigned several years ago, with an eagle replacing the yellow ribbon, but the motto remained.

“It was patriotic,” he said of the phrase. “And we thought we needed a plate in North Carolina that was really patriotic.”

Roach said people choose the plate for different reasons – some because they know it supports the fund, but others because of the words and symbols. He is not particularly worried that a free version will draw people away from buying the plates that benefit his fund.

“Will it hurt us? I don’t know. It might, but then again, it might not,” he said. “It just gives more people an option. I don’t have an issue with it.”

A motto might seem like something to be chosen early in an enterprise, but that wasn’t the case with the ones for the U.S. or North Carolina. The state did not have a motto until the legislature adopted the Latin version in 1893 and had it added to the state seal.

And In God We Trust didn’t become the national motto until 1956, when Congress unanimously passed a resolution to answer the official atheism of the Soviet Union. It began appearing on U.S. currency the next year.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to have the national motto rescinded by people who think that it violates the clause in the U.S. Constitution against the establishment of religion by the government, but the courts have disagreed.

About 20 states, including Virginia and South Carolina, offer residents the option of a license plate that says In God We Trust, most like North Carolina for a special fee. Last year, Tennessee began offering a free but optional In God We Trust plate as Jones is proposing.

And South Carolina also offers a plate that says "In Reason We Trust," introduced under the sponsorship of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry as a counterpoint to the national motto. The plates costs an extra $30 every two years, and none of the proceeds go to the humanists group.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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