In Indiana, a fight over ‘In God We Trust’ license plates

ingodwetrust.jpgFORT WAYNE, IND. — When Mark Studler was renewing his specialty license plate recently, which touts his support of environmental issues, he expected to pay the annual premium of $40 to the state.

After all, he wanted to express his love of the great outdoors every time he hit the highways — and liked that $25 of the fee was donated to the Indiana Heritage Trust, a state conservation group.

But he objected to a new license plate that he felt also qualified as a specialty plate — one with the motto “In God We Trust” — but didn’t require a premium. Not even the $15 extra fee that usually goes to the state for administrative costs.

“I don’t have any problem with people expressing their religious beliefs, whether it’s on a bumper sticker or their license plate,” said Studler, 49, a construction worker. “But folks should be treated in the same way — and charged the same fees by the state — as Hoosiers who prefer that their custom tags promote education or the environment.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit, on behalf of Studler, in state court against the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Commissioner Ronald L. Stiver. The complaint challenges a law that lets motorists get the “In God We Trust” design without paying the $15 administrative fee.

The state says the new “In God We Trust” plate is not a specialty plate — like dozens of others it offers — but rather a second “standard” plate, like the one that features a pastoral scene, and is thus not subject to special fees.

State officials say the plate, introduced in January, has been a hit, chosen by more than 540,000 motorists. That means that had the state charged the $15 fee, it would have an additional $8 million in its coffers.

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