Below is the testimony today of Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott:
Wisconsin Assembly Bill 244 would create a religious and exclusionary Wisconsin license plate. Elected officials should not use their government position and influence to promote their religious views.
The phrase “In God We Trust” is not representative of all Wisconsinites. To be accurate, it would have to say, “In god some of us trust.” The Pew Research Center reports that nearly 20% of adult Americans, and one in three young adults, is now non-religious. According to Department of Defense data from 2012, 23% of military personnel identified as non-religious. A survey of FFRF’s membership also demonstrated that 24% of its members are veterans.
State legislators are elected to represent all citizens, including those who do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods. Both supporters and opponents of the bill recognize that “In God We Trust” is a religious statement. The fact that a portion of the plate fees would go to the state’s Veterans Trust Fund does not mitigate the problems with a religious plate.
In addition to being a religious endorsement, the bill is a failure as a matter of policy. Rep. Kaufert, who introduced the bill, told the Capital Times this week that veteran-themed plates are only available to current and former military members. This is false. The state already offers a “Wisconsin Salutes Veterans” plate, which honors all and excludes no one. The Department of Transportation promotes, in bold font, that the current plate is available to anyone who is “interested in expressing support for Wisconsin’s veterans.”
As the Supreme Court has said, “[S]ponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’”
The history of the motto “In God We Trust” evidences no secular purpose; on the contrary, the motto was first adopted in 1956 during the Cold War, as a reaction to the purported “godlessness” of Communism. “E Pluribus Unum”,” meaning “out of many, one” was the entirely secular motto that was selected by the founders, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
A private group may already utilize the normal process that is available for special group plates. This bill specially approves an “In God We Trust” plate. Such special approval was a primary reason that an “I believe” religious plate in South Carolina was ruled unconstitutional. The court said in that case:
“Any religious message approved through South Carolina’s legislative process (such as was used to create the “I Believe” plate) would likely violate the Establishment Clause because the speech involved is predominantly government speech and the legislative approval of it evidences approval of the referenced religion.”
The Wisconsin State Assembly should respect the beliefs and non-belief of all citizens and reject Assembly Bill 244.