Thomas Howard: $30 fee for alternate isn’t worth lawsuit

By THOMAS HOWARD,

Mississippi is being threatened with a lawsuit again, and for once, it doesn’t have to do with abortion or potential human rights violations.

Last week, the American Humanists Association, a group of atheists and agnostics, sent a letter to the state Revenue Commissioner, Herb Frierson, threatening to sue over the new Mississippi license plates, which are stamped with the phrase, “in God we trust.” The humanists argue the new plates violate the Establishment Clause, part of the first amendment, which is commonly referred to as the separation of church and state.

The issue the humanists have with the plate is that residents must pay an additional $30 to get a specialty plate to avoid driving around with a pro-God license plate. The group asked the state to designate an alternative default license plate – which doesn’t cost extra – or redesign the current plate, taking out the offending phrase.

Now, I know atheists’ complaints go over about as well in the Bible Belt as a college algebra student whining about how hard math is at an astrophysics convention. However, a potential violation of the Establishment Clause isn’t something to brush off.

The Arkansas Legislature tried to do just that, ignoring concerns from the Satanic Temple about a Ten Commandments monument installed outside a state courthouse. In August of last year, they were treated to a large rally on the capitol grounds featuring an 8-foot-tall statue of the anthropomorphized goat deity, Baphomet. They also received a handful of lawsuits from the Satanic Temple and the American Civil Liberties Union as a bonus.

When it comes to deciding whether the government’s actions are a violation of the Establishment Clause, it quickly becomes likely the Supreme Court will have to weigh in on the decision. Sometimes, the court sides with the state, sometimes with the offended group. In either outcome, it takes years of lawsuits, court appearances and taxpayer-funded man hours before a decision is reached.

In the case of the humanists’ complaints about our new license plates, I really don’t have a strong opinion. As I am obligated by law to have a license plate, I buy one, but it’s not a fashion statement, a reflection of my politics or even something I think about very often. I get a card in the mail every May, write a check and forget about it for another 12 months. I can see where the humanists are going with their argument, but, to me, it seems like nit-picking. It’s a license plate for Pete sake!

On the other hand, this type of idiotic crusade is the type of thing I can see Mississippi lawmakers going to war over. It’s a minor issue with almost no actual value to their constituents regardless of outcome. In other words, it’s the perfect way to waste time and taxpayer money while still looking like their accomplishing something; every politician’s dream.

Currently, state attorneys are looking at the letter the American Humanist Association sent to see if their claim has any teeth.  I am hoping the two groups can come to an agreement without involving the judicial system, but I have my doubts. If history holds true, our elected leadership will drag this out as long as they can, holding press conferences and rallies to tout their prowess defending religion in our state and plenty of wasteful spending.

I guess it’s just hard for me to see their advocacy as sincere when they’re writing the check with someone else’s money.

Thomas is the managing editor of the Newton County Appeal. He can be reached at thoward@newtoncountyappeal.com