Since the motto, "In God We Trust," is good enough for U.S. currency, a legislative committee figured Wednesday it is good enough to appear on new specialty Utah vehicle license plates, too.
But that came after an unexpected fight — not over whether that may violate the separation of church and state, but over whether money raised from $25-a-year fees for the plates should go as currently proposed to America’s Freedom Festival in Provo, or be split with other communities’ celebrations, too.
But in the end, the Transportation Interim Committee had only one vote in opposition to the bill sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem — which would allow the "In God We Trust" plates to join 53 other fund-raiser plates offered in Utah for groups ranging from colleges to firefighters to Boy Scouts.
The idea for the plates comes from 11-year-old Tate Christensen of Salt Lake City. He has collected license plates from all 50 states, and did research showing that 12 other states offer specialty plates with the "In God We Trust" motto — but not Utah.
"America started printing the slogan, ‘In God We Trust,’ on its coins back in 1860. It was a statement that helped people get through the Civil War and has been part of America ever since," Christensen told the committee.
"I would love to see these plates out on the road," he said. "I would also love to add a Utah ‘In God We Trust’ license plate to my collection — if I can just get my parents to give me one after they put one on the car."
Christensen asked his uncle, Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert, for help seeking the license plate. They worked with lawmakers, and America’s Freedom Festival to sponsor it as a specialty plate. If the bill passes and at least 500 people preorder plates — and agree to pay $25 a year to display them — the plates will become available.
However, that led several lawmakers to question why funds raised by the national motto should go just to the Freedom Festival —the only organization likely to qualify for funds raised under current wording requiring it to go to charities that sponsor at least "20 educational programs and community events" that "celebrate, teach, or honor families, freedom, God and country."
Sen. Karen Mayne and Rep. Janice Fisher, both D-West Valley, were among lawmakers who argued at length that many other communities offer smaller July Fourth or community events, and urged amending the bill to allow them to qualify for a split of the money. A move to amend failed.
Mayne also said she questioned whether using state license plates to raise money for teaching about families and god is wise. She said state residents have many divergent views about god — and different gods — and different types of families, which may not be well represented in how the money is spent.
"The goal is not to serve as a fund-raiser," Mower said. "The goal is to get this important message on as many Utah cars as possible." He said the Freedom Festival was recruited to raise initial funds needed for plates and the required minimum of 500 subscribers. "This is not going to be a huge money-maker," he said.
Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, said lawmakers did not fight at such length in the past over other organizations using license plates to raise money, and said sarcastically, "Maybe we need to be concerned where money is going because god is involved, I guess."
Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, cast the lone vote against the bill in the end, saying he does not like the state helping to collect money for charities and worries slogans on license plates seems to give a government endorsement of those messages — which he said is not a proper role of government.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said the plates do not violate the separation of church and state, as is shown by its appearance on U.S. currency. He said court decisions have also held "that this language is not religious in nature, and doesn’t violate any separation of church and state clauses."
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