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.
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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.
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!