License plate law

License plate law

A member of the General Assembly of Tennessee recently requested clarification from the State Attorney General on a proposed bill that would require all Tennessee vehicle registration plates to bear the phrase “In God We Trust.” In finding that the above considered legislation would be constitutionally suspect under both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, the Attorney General provided the following rationale.

The phrase “In God We Trust” has well-delineated historical roots in the United States.  Not only has the phrase been our national motto since 1956, but its official use dates back even further to 1865, when the Mint began stamping it on coins of the United States. But while the phrase is displayed in prominent places in our federal government, not the least which being above the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives and above the main door of the Senate of the United States, there are also undeniable religious undertones inherent to the phrase.

As a result of these inherent religious undertones which are associated with the phrase, the Attorney General found that the desired legislation would inevitably have First Amendment implications. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These promises stand as a barrier between Congress and an individual’s right and freedom to worship, believe, and express themselves as they see fit. The Fourteenth Amendment, then, applies that the same barrier to legislatures of the many states.

Moreover, “[t]he Tennessee Constitution provides the same or greater protections that are afforded under the . . . clauses [of the First Amendment], and the legal analysis under the Tennessee Constitution is essentially the same as that under the Federal Constitution.” See State ex rel. v. Comm’r of Transp. v. Medicine Bird Black Bear White Eagle, 63 S.W.3d 734, 761 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001); see also Martin v. Beer Bd. for City of Dickinson, 908 S.W.2d 941, 946 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995) (recognizing Article I, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution guarantees a stronger free exercise right than the Federal Constitution).

Ultimately, the Attorney General found that requiring “In God We Trust” to be stamped on the license plates of every Tennessean would run afoul of the free speech clause, the free exercise clause, and the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as well as, Article I, Sections 3 and 19 of the Tennessee Constitution. Interestingly, however, the Attorney General found that legislation which would give vehicle owners the option of selecting a license plate bearing the phrase “In God We Trust” would be constitutionally permissible.

The important takeaway here is this.  It seems likely that if we Tennesseans are going to see a version of this bill passed into law, it will likely be a version which gives vehicle owners the option to purchase a license plate stating “In God We Trust,” not one which requires it.

Jarrod B. Casteel is an attorney with the law firm of Butler, Vines and Babb, P.L.L.C. in Knoxville, Tennessee and can be contacted at (865) 637-3531.

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