In January, 2007, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles began offering 75 different specialty license plates including an “In God We Trust” option. The first 74 plates required payment of a $15 administrative fee. The In God We Trust plate was free. The ACLU challenged the cost differential. However, the Marion (Indiana) county court dismissed the case — accepting the state’s argument that the “In God We Trust” plate is not a “specialty plate,” but rather just another “regular” plate. (Source). The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
Indiana’s BMV website lists a number of “standard” license plates including “Support our Troops” and “Boyhood Home of Lincoln” without additional charge. (source)
Although it does not seem that the State of Indiana is giving out a free specialty plate, the plate itself might violate the establishment clause.
Under Lemon v. Kurtzman, a government action is a violation if it fails the following test:
- The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
- The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
- The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
If any of these three conditions are violated, then the action is an Establishment Clause violation. Additionally, in Lynch v. Donnelly, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote (in a concurrence):
The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions …The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. (source)
The “In God We Trust” tag still might be Constitutionally permissible. Although the Lemon test and O’Connor’s clarification of the Establishment Clause create quite a thicket, this just might navigate through it. Like it or not (I don’t), the National Motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.” In Aronow v. United States, 432 F.2d 242 (9th Cir. 1970), the 9th Circuit ruled that it had nothing to do with religion, and was rather of “patriotic” and “ceremonial” character. Any appellate challenge to this license plate on Establishment Clause grounds will need to confront Aronow (which is not binding in Indiana) and its logic.