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Monday, December 5, 2011

"In God We Trust" and the right not to speak

The state of Georgia is considering a bill which requires that "In God We Trust" be on the license plates of all registered vehicles, unless the owner pays to have the slogan covered up:
Georgia SB 293 would amend current law to mandate that, starting next summer, all plates would be imprinted with the religious declaration. If someone does not wish to exhibit this statement of faith, they would be required to purchase a sticker from the state displaying the name of their county that could be used to cover “In God We Trust.”  
The bill text currently available on the legislature’s website really drives home the dramatic change in attitudes by the Assembly, as you can clearly see what has been crossed out and changed. While displaying the county name is the current “default” choice for Georgia drivers and alternatively they may purchase an “In God We Trust” sticker, this bill would directly swap the two, making the religious motto the routine option.  
Mandating that individuals pay money to the government in order to not flaunt religious views is absolutely ridiculous. As the website Georgia Politico aptly puts it, “In other words, if you feel the government should not be establishing a religion, you are going to have to pay to prove it.”
  ...and if you do decide to prove it, it's possible you might be targeting yourself for retaliation by anyone who considers a refusal to display the message to be an offense. Regardless of whether your reason is an actual disagreement with the sentiment or a disapproval of the requirement to display it, observers are invited to form their own interpretations and make judgments on that basis. Being forced to decide whether it's appropriate to take this risk is particularly strange, as Secular News Daily points out, because the "In God We Trust" plate was already one of the options available to Georgia drivers.

Over at Dispatches, chaosof99 notes that even though the statement in question is the nation's motto, a person could make a legitimate (in the eyes of the court) objection to the plates based on a violation of First Amendment rights:
Wooley v. Maynard. Came across that quite by coincidence because for a reason I no longer remember I looked up “Live free or die” on wikipedia.  
Anyway, it’s unconstitutional to force people to display an opinion or sentiment against their will. The Wooley v. Maynard case is already a Supreme Court precedent for this, and also pertains to slogans on license plates.
I had not previously heard of Wooley v. Maynard, but it's definitely a story of having courage of one's convictions. A Jehovah's Witness couple (the Maynards) were unwilling to display the New Hampshire state motto on their license plate and opted to cover it up. Since a New Hampshire statute deems it an offense to obscure any figures or letters on a plate, they were cited for it. George Maynard showed up in court in 1974, represented himself, and plead not guilty, citing religious objections to displaying the motto. He was found guilty but a $25 fine was suspended due to "good behavior." The following year when he was cited again, Maynard again showed up in court and plead not guilty. He was fined $50 and given a six month sentence in the Grafton House of Corrections, which was also suspended although the court ordered him to pay $25 for the first offense. Maynard explained that he would not pay either fine as a matter of conscience, whereupon the court sentenced him to fifteen days in jail, which he served.

The following year, the Maynards sued in New Hampshire's district court against enforcement of the original statute under which George had been cited, in response to which the judge issued a temporary restraining order against any further arrest or prosecution of them. Because the couple's suit sought an injunction against the state of New Hampshire on the grounds of unconstitutionality, the case went to the Supreme Court, who agreed with the Maynards in a 6-to-3 decision:
New Hampshire's statute in effect requires that appellees use their private property as a "mobile billboard" for the State's ideological message - or suffer a penalty, as Maynard already has. As a condition to driving an automobile - a virtual necessity for most Americans - the Maynards must display "Live Free or Die" to hundreds of people each day. The fact that most individuals agree with the thrust of New Hampshire's motto is not the test; most Americans also find the flag salute acceptable. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable.
Well said. Let's hope that, if necessary, the same will apply to people made to display this ideological message.

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