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

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

“It’s ugly. McGhee stated that it was ugly, ugly, and very ugly. McGhee stated that “most of my friends” are getting an Ole Miss sticker. He clarified that many of these friends are not alumni or fans of the school. “They’d rather have anything else on their car than that.” Mississippi’s elected officials have been vocal advocates of a variety of polarizing issues in recent years. These include a 2016 so-called religious liberty bill, which critics called antiLGBTQ, and a litany anti-abortion initiatives. One of the most controversial controversies was erupting last May via social media when Gov. Phil Bryant revealed the new design of Mississippi’s default license plate — the only one that Mississippi drivers have access to without paying an additional fee. Users were critical of the design, just like McGhee. One user complained that the state seal was placed too far from the center. Another user criticized the “incredibly boring” decision to use state seal. Another person called the background “the colour of dust.” However, it was loved by many. This inscription, along with the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and other laws, could see Mississippi once more in federal court to challenge its constitutionality. The Washington, D.C.-based American Humanist Association sent a letter last month to the state, warning them to sue over the “In God We Trust” tag. They argued that some Mississippians don’t believe or find the message offensive. The group claims that the state cannot constitutionally force anyone to choose between having that message displayed on their property or paying for a plate without it. Monica Miller, an American Humanist Association attorney, stated that the Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that you not only have the right of saying what you like but also the right not to use a state-sponsored message. But there’s a new view on Supreme Court precedent. The conservative Texas-based First Liberty Institute, which was founded in Texas, wrote to Bryant two weeks later, challenging Bryant’s letter. It argued that the plate was constitutional. The group stated that “The Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that the national slogan plainly does not promote religion, serves no secular purpose of promoting patriotism and is only a reference to our religious history.” The state now has two options: defend its plate in court, or offer a second design with no fees. Both options have the potential of costing taxpayers hundreds of thousand of dollars. Dave Stratton (president of the American License Plate Collectors Association Magnolia Region), a plate collector for more than 60 years, stated that “it could have been done a whole lot better in a lot a ways.” It’s difficult to understand why it wasn’t.” The “In God We Trust” plate is not the first Mississippi license tag that has driven some Mississippians insane. The most recent tag, which featured a blue-on white depiction B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille. King’s guitar, Lucille is still highly regarded today. However, King’s supporters initially felt that the tribute to Mississippi’s musical heritage did not accurately portray Lucille. A plate with a lighthouse theme was created before that. It was backlit against a purple and gold sunset, and intended to be a post-Hurricane Katrina memorial to the Gulf Coast lighthouse and Biloxi lighthouse. “Some people in Mississippi’s north didn’t know that there were lighthouses in Mississippi. People from the coast saw it and thought, “Those are LSU colors,” said Kathy Waterbury. Waterbury has been working at the Department of Revenue for more than 40 years. This agency is responsible for vehicle registration. Waterbury claimed that the “fried egg tag” was even worse. It featured a yellow-and-white drawing of a magnolia (Mississippi’s state flower) and was issued in 2002. Waterbury stated that it looked like a fried eggs if you stood at least 15 feet away. However, Mississippi’s new plate has been controversial. Bryant’s May 2018 post on Facebook revealing the tag attracted more than 2,700 comments. There have been only four other posts that Bryant has made since becoming governor that have attracted more attention online. A thank you post to President Donald Trump for his attendance at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in 2017 got less than half the response. Even fewer people were interested in Mississippi’s recent abortion ban after it was announced on Fox and Friends. Stratton, who has every Mississippi car tag since 1919, said that plate design is something people take very seriously. The U.S. Supreme Court seems to be serious about the content of state license plates. The high court ruled that New Hampshire residents could not be required to display plates bearing the motto of the state — “Live Free or Die.” This was after a Jehovah’s Witness argued that the message went against his religious beliefs. Miller, an attorney for the humanist association, stated, “So it’s freedom and freedom of speech. “The Supreme Court has clarified that the state cannot force you to put something on your vehicle, which is your private property,” Miller said. To see how personal license tags can be to drivers, one only needs to look at the over 200 specialty tags in the state and the number who own one. Mississippians have about 400,000 specialty tags on their cars. The cost for such a distinction is $33 to $53. This represents nearly 20% of the 2,000,000 personal cars on the roads. These numbers are increasing. Mississippi drivers received 75,791 specialty tags between January 1 and March 31 2019, which was an 11 percent increase from the 2018 time frame. Clay County Tax Collector Paige Lamkin agrees that specialty tags are on the rise in her county. She said that the message on the tag is not what is bothering residents. “We’ve had people come in saying, ‘They look dirty.'” Lamkin stated. “They don’t like that color at any time,” Lamkin said. Technically, Mississippi had already broken its own law when it issued the new tag in 2019. The reason is that state code requires that the Department of Revenue issue a new tag design every five years. In October 2002, the “fried egg” plate was introduced. Lucille came in 2012 and 2007 respectively. The default tag needed a revamp in 2017. However, Waldale, a Nova Scotia-based company that manufactures Mississippi’s car tags over the decades, continued to ship Lucille plates south to its southernmost customer. In 2017, Mississippi celebrated its bicentennial. It is common to have commemorative bicentennial tags — Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee each issued one — so Bryant’s office started working with the Mississippi Development Authority in 2015. Lucy Hetrick (the Lucille plate designer) was tapped by the development authority to create a prototype for the bicentennial. The package included the companion “Welcome To Bicentennial Mississippi” road signs. This was then presented by the agency to the governor. Malcolm White, the head of tourism for the state at that time, said that “he really liked it.” “And then, honestly speaking, nothing really happened.” It is not known if the governor considered using the designs. Multiple interview requests by Mississippi Today were declined by his office. Waterbury said that she wasn’t aware of any plans to create a 2017 tag and that the Department of Revenue had a simple explanation for taking nearly two years for them to do so. Waterbury stated that there was a budget issue. It costs a lot of money for new plates to be issued. Although new plates are issued every time a driver purchases a car, the initial year of a new design is extremely expensive. The department must reissue every default tag — approximately 2.4 million vehicles — costing $2.07 per tag. The bicentennial of Mississippi was also celebrated in 2017. However, the fiscal year 2017 saw a sudden budget deficit and drastic statewide budget cuts. “It feels like a missed chance,” Stratton stated about the bicentennial plates. It would have been a great way for Mississippi to promote itself.” For over 40 years, tourism and license plate design have been intertwined in Mississippi. The Mississippi State issued a magnolia-themed tag in 1976. It was called “The Hospitality State.” Stratton stated that Mississippi was looking to improve its image and become part of the New South. “Here we are,” he said. This design was awarded the American License Plate Collectors plate-of-the year award. In the following decades, there were no graphics and the revival of magnolias — both regular and “fried” — but it was former Governor. Former Gov. Haley Barbour was the one who came up with the idea of themed plates for Mississippi to promote the state. He collaborated with the Mississippi Development Authority on both the lighthouse design in 2007 and the Lucille plate in 2012. The Lucille plate was created a few years after marketing the Blues Trail began. It bears the slogan “Birthplace America’s Music.” Paul Hurst, Barbour’s former chief of staff, stated that it was important for him to get it right. “And I believe Gov. Bryant was driven by the same desire.” Bryant’s office, contrary to Barbour, did not collaborate with Mississippi Development Authority on the design of the current tag. Melissa Scallan, spokesperson for the agency, said Mississippi Today. Bryant’s office suggested a state seal design which Waldale, the Canadian manufacturer of tags, requested to be produced. Mississippi Today was told by two sources who were familiar with the process that the Capitol dome, steamboat and bridge were all first considered within the governor’s offices. Each design was rejected. The state-seal design for Waldale was unveiled by the Department of Revenue in spring 2018. This was the last step in the plate design process. The design was approved unanimously by the four members of the commission. It included one representative from each of the governor’s, attorney general’s, and state treasurer’s offices. “It was one vote. Here’s the design. Michelle Williams, chief staff for the state treasurer was present at the meeting. “There was no ‘OK. Should we do a seal?” Is it okay to not seal the document? Do we need a seal? Bryant’s religious message was the first thing Bryant highlighted when he presented the license tag to state shortly after. “It was a proud honor to have signed legislation that added the United States National Motto, “In God We Trust”, to the Mississippi State Seal in 2014. Bryant posted on Facebook and Twitter that he was equally thrilled to announce that the new Mississippi license plates will feature it. A license plate is not meant to be a conversation piece or beautiful. It is to help law enforcement identify a car. According to the Department of Revenue the current tag design accomplishes this. Waterbury stated that you want the numbers to be visible so law enforcement can see them. She said, “Once we decided that we were going to use the state seal,” this was the design that worked. The Mississippi Legislature was considering a “religious freedom bill” in the spring 2014. Opponents claimed that it would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ persons. A watered-down version of the bill that was based on federal law was created after fierce opposition. Bryant signed the bill. It also included “In God We Trust” to Mississippi’s state seal. Bryant appeared on American Family Radio May 14 to express his confusion at the outrage and resentment directed against a design that he said was “just the seal.” He also noted that Mississippi wasn’t the first state to include “In God We Trust” into a car tag. Bryant stated that one of the reporters said, “Oh you know, this is an invitation to lawsuit.” Bryant is correct, but Mississippi was the first state to use “In God We Trust” on its default tag. The courts have repeatedly ruled that “In God We Trust” is a right of the government to display it on government property such as dollar bills or schools. It is not clear whether this right extends to citizens’ personal property, but this case could prove it. Bryant seems to be happy with the “In God We Trust” tag in general. He also spoke to American Family Radio host Tim Wildmon, saying that he was proud of the tag. It’s a lovely tag. It will look great on all cars in Mississippi.” The American Humanist Association initially gave Mississippi until May 4, to issue a non-theistic license tag. Otherwise, Mississippi could be taken to court. The Department of Revenue stated that the state has not yet determined which path it will take. Meanwhile, the American Humanist Association indicated that it was still discussing the possibility of litigation. Stratton stated that if the matter ends up in court to be redesigned, it would be history for us (collectors). “But if they have to spend a lot of money, God bless them for putting God in this position.”