The Ongoing Controversy Surrounding Tennessee’s License Plates

a mockup of a white car with blue tn license plate without in god we trust

The new Tennessee license plates have created quite a buzz on social media (rendering by TheSmokies.com with stock by Vach cameraman/shutterstock.com)

A Tennessee resident weighs in on the debate surrounding the state’s new license plate design

Back when I was a boy growing up in Indiana (before moving to Tennessee), I remember when government officials changed the official license plate slogan from “Hoosier State” to “Wander”. It was actually the focus of a tourism campaign: Wander Indiana. People did not take the change well. They said it made it sound like we were lost. A couple of years later, they changed it to a series of duds like “Back Home Again” followed by “Hoosier Hospitality” and “Amber Waves of Grain”. Finally, the “Crossroads of America” stuck and hung around for a while. I’d forgotten about that controversy until I found that Tennessee was in the midst of a license plate controversy over the – somewhat ugly – new blue plate, originally released in 2022. This debate isn’t about aesthetics – though if I may be allowed an editorial comment, I would like to go on the record and say, woof.

The plates that do not have “In God We Trust” start with letters, whereas the plates with “In God We Trust” start with numbers (photos by Rachel Taylor/TheSmokies.com) (Note: plate numbers have been altered for privacy)

What is the controversy?

It’s not over plates themselves but over a particular version of the plate. Tennessee designed the new plate in two variants. One version has the words “In God We Trust” over the state symbol, a circle with three stars representing Tennessee’s three grand divisions. As has been the case for many years, Tennessee’s drivers can choose whether or not to have “In God We Trust” on their plate. No one is being forced to display a statement of religion that they don’t want. 

However, there’s a detail about the new plates – another difference between the variants – that is causing some to question whether the plates are being used to identify drivers based on religious beliefs. Beyond the fact that one plate has the words “In God We Trust” and the other does not, the order of letters and numbers is different, depending on whether or not you have a national motto of the United States on your new Tennessee license plate. Specifically, the “In God We Trust” plates begin with numbers. The standard plates start with letters. This makes the type of plate you choose recognizable from a distance. An officer is going to have a hard time seeing the tiny letters of the motto from any reasonable distance. The order of the numbers and letters? That is easier to see.

Other issues with the new design

In a somewhat humour turn of events, it also turns out that the new plates may help drivers avoid speeding tickets. It seems the plates are difficult for traffic ticket cameras to read. Some would argue this is a win for drivers. Proponents of safety, not so much.

Do Tennesseeans have to use the new design?

Tennesseeans should however keep in mind that they still have a choice in the matter. If you want yours to have the special verbiage, it will. It’s also important to note that Tennessee isn’t alone here. Many states offer the “In God We Trust” plate variants including Indiana, Florida, Utah, South Carolina and a bunch of others.  

And if you’d rather opt out of the new design completely, Tennessee has more than 100 types of license plate designs. The list includes a University of Tennessee National Champions plate I’ve had my eye on since 1998. You can also get ones representing a variety of universities including Florida and Alabama, both of which I think should be banned immediately. The license plate, not the universities. 

a blue tn license plate that does no say in god we trust
The new Tennessee license plates are drawing a lot of attention (photo by Rachel Taylor/TheSmokies.com) (Note: plate numbers have been altered for privacy)

Why did they change the plate in the first place? 

According to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, it’s the law … kind of. Per a press release, the law requires the state Department of Revenue to create new plates every eight years. That is if the legislature provides the funding in the budget. The old plates – the white Tennessee license plates with the green outline of mountains – were introduced in 2006 and modified 2011, 2016 and 2017. So why is there a difference between the standard plates and the plates with “In God We Trust” on them? Kelly Cortesi, the spokesperson for the state Department of Revenue, told Knox News that the decision to give the “In God We Trust” plate a specific configuration format was for “administrative and inventory purposes and helps prevent duplicate issuance of sequences between the two plate types.”

The final design was chosen using the same methods employed by American Idol. In other words, a popular online vote. According to the state, more than 300,000 Tennessee residents cast a vote, with 42% voting for the winning design. For the record, I wasn’t one of them, so I guess maybe I shouldn’t complain.

What do you think about the license plate controversy? Let us know in the comments!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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75 thoughts on “The Ongoing Controversy Surrounding Tennessee’s License Plates”

  1. With it being a Choice, why wouldn’t you get the national motto on your plate? Especially here in Tennessee. People who don’t want it, or don’t like it, move to NY.

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  2. Pony up the donation for one of the many specialty plates – so many great causes like Friends of the Smokies and Smoky Mountain Rescue Dogs. They’re beautiful and worthwhile

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  3. I believe in the constitution. And I believe in separation of church and state. So I chose without. If you don’t agree this is America we have a right to choose. You are right they are ugly and so were the other choices.

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  4. What is the controversy about? Most ridiculous thing I’ve heard arguing about a Tag🙄 You have a choice I have 2 vehicles YES both my choice say IN GOD WE TRUST. In East TN we’re about family, neighbors, southern hospitality, Guns, and God’s country. 🙏😁

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  5. I agree, they are UGLY PLATES! I don’t know why they couldn’t put our mtns back on a plate. That’s what this state is famous for, other then Country music in Nashville & Elvis Presley in Memphis.

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  6. I got the one without In God We Trust because I stand behind the Constitution of Seperation of Church and State. And I do attend church church and believe in God.

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  7. Yes, we voted, but we had a choice between 3 plates that all basically looked the same, so not much choice. I don’t believe that anything to do with our government or taxpayers money should have anything religious on it, but apparently in the South they don’t agree, even though it’s in the Constitution. So no, I refuse the god plates. No thank you.

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  8. One has a choice , either get the in god we trust or don’t I didn’t choose to. My plate, my choice.

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  9. I did not know we had a choice!! Just knew we were going to have new plates. When I got my new plate the smiling (sure) lady did not ask me which one I wanted so did not know I had a choice. Customer service she does not belong in.

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  10. The biggest complaint I have about the new plates (Besides the color) is that the words “In God We Trust” aren’t big enough. You know, when you aren’t very proud of something you write it small. When you don’t want people to hear what you are saying, you whisper, IN GOD WE TRUST should be at least as big as the name of the state or even bigger. It is the most important words on the plate and as one person said, we better do it.

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  11. I think the new plates are butt ugly!! I say that’s a bunch of B.S. as far as the explanation for the sequence differences between plates. Personally, I think they visibly divide drivers into two political camps especially here in NE Tennessee! Thankfully I have a specialty plate so I don’t have that ugly thing on my car!!!

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  12. I was not given a choice and that aggravates me. I believe in separation of church and state and mine does say In God We Trust and I would not have chosen that!

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  13. My problem was I was not given a choice when I purchased the tag for the first car. Then I saw the In God We Trust on another and was told we had a choice. The second one I purchased, I did request it. I no longer have the first card, but I was quite upset when I found out I could have had what I believe on the first.

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  14. There is no choice on the personalized plate (there should be) so I ordered some In God We Trust vinyl decals of different sizes and put one on the top of my silicone rubber license plate frame. Looks great, subtle but not as subtle as the letters on the requested IGWT Plate.

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  15. Update – Starting July 1, 2023 the “In God We Trust” version becomes the default and you have to opt to obtain the “Standard” plate. I for one do not believe I should have to declare my beliefs just to get a license plate. This will only further to divide us.

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  16. I have a specialty plate (submarine veteran), so the new plates don’t really apply to me.

    That said, I think the “standard” plate should be the one without the motto. If you want something extra, anything aside from state/license number, pick it. If not, you get the basic plate.

    Why people are upset that they didn’t get a religious statement on their state-issues license plate…is beyond me.

    As to the theory of the letters/numbers being different between them…seems a simple accounting/inventory issue to me. I doubt anyone cares what you have on your plate except police, and then they only care that you are up to date on your registration and have a legitimate (not fake/forged) plate.

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  17. I voted, I lost. I liked the other color of plate. I didn’t like the old plates, so I got several specialty plates for my cars.

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  18. I wasn’t given a choice either. The old license plates represented Tennessee nicely and In God We Trust was very visible. I don’t care for the blue color. It should have been red like our state flag.

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  19. IN GOD WE TRUST!!!! SHOULD BE MANDATORY!! Study history and learn what happened to nations, and people who did not place GOD first in their lives. And furthermore God should always be capitalized in writings.

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  20. ” IN GOD WE TRUST “…opinion..
    Separation of Church & State is not relevant in the phrase IN GOD WE TRUST. Our Nation was established and we have the freedoms that we have, because our founding fathers trusted in God to declare a Constitution that was freedom from all tyranny. They took special times of solitude for prayer to God about what our Sovereign rights as Americans would be for all men.
    I proudly have IN GOD WE TRUST on my license plate. Everyone has the right to believe whatever they choose.
    My complaint is that It is too small. It seems that the State of Tennessee puts vacations above God. How large is the vacation in Tennessee logo??

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  21. How about plates white back ground
    Black lettering
    The state of issue top center
    Tag number center of tag
    The country of issue bottom center
    Lower left the sticker you have to get yearly

    It should be this way nation wide
    It’s just a car tag but everyone wants to make it a fashion statement
    How childish

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  22. The phrase of Separation of Church and State is no where in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. It came from a letter that President Jefferson wrote explaining the meaning of the 1st Amendment. It was never to keep God out of government but keep government out of Religion. The Bible was the highest source of quotes used. 34% was from biblical writings, 4 times higher than the 2nd source used. This country was built on Christian beliefs and doctrines. This country has gotten away from God and this is the main reason we are in the shape we are in.

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  23. I didn’t know there was an option. I sent them a check and they sent me a tag. I don’t remember seeing an option on the form. So I got what they sent me.

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  24. First and foremost, this freedom we enjoy came to pass because because of the basic Christain belief of the right to choose, exercising you individual agency. The predominant faith that freedom is a right comes from pure Christain principles. Secondly, no one is saying who your God has to be, heck it could be Google if you like. The founding Father’s created a document that enables every citizen freedom to think, speak, and act as long as those choices do not interfere with another person’s same rights.
    With that said, making multiple options available to citizens follows the same premise upon which this country was founded. If there’s a concern and problem that’s why there are laws and judges and freedoms to vote and participate in such decisions.
    Personal opinion, they are not that attractive. Then again, I don’t live here because of the license plate on a vehicle.

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  25. There really is no controversy surrounding this. It’s merely a choice of preference. The only people mad about this are the folks that want to force their beliefs on to others. To them I ask, would you want my religious beliefs to dictate your freedoms? I didn’t think so.

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  26. John, I had the exact same thought about profiling when I saw there was a difference in the numbering between the two plates. I was concerned enough about it that I decided to buy one of the other designs (which does cost extra, I know it’s not a lot but it does build up over years). Sure, it’s “simple accounting” but one COULD figure out another technique for it that’s a *little* less obvious…

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  27. Wake up Tennessee & look around. God is coming and he is all we have in this crazy world. In God we better trust!

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  28. In 2022, at lesst 30% of the plates had ‘BJ’ in the letter scheme. My nephew’s first car plate had ‘BJJR’. The tag and title office received negative comments.

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  29. I was surprised but pleased to see that TN decided to go with Kentucky Blue. There probably would be a revolution in KY if they made our plates Tennessee Orange! Bob Johnston, UK ‘53.

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  30. These new plates aren’t the best looking in the country, nor are they the ugliest. I agree the “In God We Trust” is not nearly as big as it should be. I’m proud to say I trust in God, I just wish I could say it a little louder/larger on my plate.

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  31. Anyone not wanting In God We Trust on their plates, should NEVER be allow to have or use money of any kind, I mean why would they want too…all money has In God We Trust.. ???

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  32. I chose the tags without in God we trust, because I believe in Separation of Church and State!
    I was told if people dont buy them online, and they come in for them the Clerk said she doesn’t give them a choice! WHAT?!!!!

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  33. I agree the in God we trust should be loud & proud. Don’t like the blue blah. Mountains coulda stayed. The fib about the reason for the difference didn’t go unnoticed by some. Smart. And the separation of church & state was to keep state outta church, not vice versa. And truly, God’s gave us all a choice. Called free will. And I thank Him we can still exercise it more here than many of the other states.

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  34. OK its time to get a life people we have more things in this state to worry about than a lic plate.after all who realy cares, we have choices here, choose one

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  35. Funny everyone believes in GOD but yet you want church and state separate? And to top it all you go and vote for a man to be over you and not GOD! And you don’t really know if who you vote for can interact with the LORD! Think about it kinda letting it be known how much sense we have. We should write in LORD at every voting poll when it comes to the leader of this land. Just saying.

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  36. Do you remember the beer cans when you were a kid? Plain white with black block letters that read “BEER”? That’s it… just…. “BEER”
    Now I’m old enough to legally drink beer but only if my beer can has a whole bunch of bc other crap written on it. C’mon people. Are we that full of ourselves? In my opinion we shouldn’t be and what we should be is…less…filling….? HA!

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  37. I think in God we trust should have been larger than the vacation.
    Anyone that believes in God needs to.say it loud and say it proud ..
    Not crazy about the dark blue color but the tiny words In God We Trust should be much larger! Without God we are nothing!!

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  38. Oh my, it’s refreshing to see the energy invested into this topic, especially with the world now that the world as a whole has become so stable and peaceful 😵‍💫

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  39. The majority of these comments (except the last one) aren’t addressing the point of the article at all. The controversy is not over if we agree with the slogan or not. It’s not about if we have the choice are not. It’s about whether that choice could be used to profile either citizen potentially. Whether you can imagine a super religious small town profiling non religious plates, or a secular government in end times singling out and persecuting religious plates…. to have that information available as a “potential” means to target either view is unnecessary even if the risk is low. Keep it anonymous and both sides win. Then everyone can meet up for lunch on Sunday whether they’re coming from church, about to head to a game, or both! Peace and love to all of you my brothers and sisters.

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  40. Stop state support of religion. Get a bumper sticker if you want to put things about god on your car. Very obvious profiling tactic by our narrow-minded state officials.

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  41. I noticed this distinction within a few days of driving around with the new plates. I was one of the first people to get the new plate so I wasn’t aware when I selected without in God we trust. If someone wants that on their plate i hàve no problem with it, I am not religious so I am not going to fake it for a license plate but now I do feel like a target because I live in a highly religious community. I don’t discuss my religious beliefs openly but now it’s on full display for anyone to make assumptions. I plan on paying the extra fee for a specialty plate Tennessee offers that goes to a good cause. I am choosing this option because of the ugly design though lol not because of in God we trust issue.

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  42. I was in law enforcement for 30 years and looking for a vehicle to see if the driver was religious or not never crossed my mind. Totally ridiculous to even think that.

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  43. I noticed this from the beginning. I also think the bigger deal about all the blue plates is that EVERY Plate has a B on it. Every dingle license plate only with the exception for customized plates. That is a bigger deal to me. If needed to memorize the plate number the one that is likely to remember is the B but that won’t help because everyone has a B in their tag number.

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  44. I noticed this from the beginning. I also think the bigger deal about all the blue plates is that EVERY Plate has a B on it. Every single license plate only with the exception for customized plates. That is a bigger deal to me. If needed to memorize the plate number the one that is likely to remember is the B but that won’t help because everyone has a B in their tag number.

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  45. Not sure I understand the comments in regards to separation of church and state and then mentioning the Constitution. That phrase by Jefferson was written in a private letter, just his thoughts. It is no where found in any official documents, and certainly not in our constitution. Jefferson didn’t want to see, in his private opinion, state controlled religion like they had just escaped from, the church of England.

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  46. Amazing with all the problems we are facing today such as people starving, don’t make enough money to pay for a decent place to live and people want to complain about a license plate how ridiculous. It’s pretty obvious some people complain just to complain. PRETTY SAD!!!!!!

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  47. I ask for the tags with IN GOD WE TRUST, they said handicap tags don’t have IN GOD WE TRUST on them. GOD IS THE ONLY ONE WE CAN TRUST.

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  48. As an atheist and an American, I support the separation of church and state. However, I’m waiting on a Flying Spaghetti Monster rendition.

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  49. For everybody that doesn’t like the term “In God We Trust”, send me all of your money that says “In God We Trust” on it.

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  50. The first amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”. The phrase in God we trust does not establish any kind of religion. It just provides fodder for some malcontent to stir up stink about. If you don’t want the motto in your license plate then ask for one without it. Nobody from the trust side is going to belittle you for it. But oh how you love them scream to the high heavens about those who do want the motto. The no trust side just wants to make a lot of noise and stir up trouble.

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  51. There has got to be more important things to concern yourselves with than a license plate design. If you want it to say “In God We Trust”, then get it. If you don’t, then don’t. It’s that simple. Seriously, people, you sound like a bunch of squabbling children. As far as the new design being hard to read with plate scanners, too bad. The government should have tested it more. They created the problem, now they can live with it. If they want to replace it, then they should eat the cost of doing so, and not pass it on to the public.

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  52. Really🙄😞this is way too petty! It’s more serious things to be addressed than a car tag it’s a Car Tag!!! So What?! And I would Never Not Profess my Lord n Saviour!!! On my car On my door On my money Out my mouth!!! Now be blessed n find more important situations to talk about🙏🏾

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  53. Lol at some of these comments. Some of y’all slept through American history class and it shows! Thank goodness it’s a choice.

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  54. I find it a little funny and sad that it would seem that most have never even read our constitution. The only reference that hints with church and state points to the fact that our government can not be controlled by religion as it was in the country that we are now free of. The government cannot come into your church and tell you what to teach and preach. It cannot order you to be a part of any religion. It is certainly a freedom you should cherish. It is on my plates because I do believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ with all that I am. Our churches are private organizations and we also have the right to refuse activities and membership to you.

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