What is the controversy over Tennessee license plates, In God We Trust?

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)

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There are many things that my Hoosier heritage has given me of which I am proud.

Love of basketball? Check. 

Appreciation for corn? Check. 

Access to a great recipe for persimmon pudding? Dang right. 

But there are times when that Hoosier upbringing rears its head in surprising places. 

For instance? A state-wide license plate controversy.  

Back when I was a boy, Indiana 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. For example, people were just coming to the state and rambling aimlessly from Gary to Terre Haut to French Lick and beyond.

For the record, there ain’t much beyond French Lick.

As a result, there were revolts. People marched in the streets. I’m only slightly exaggerating.

A couple of years later, they changed it to a series of duds. Slogans such as “Back Home Again” followed by “Hoosier Hospitality” and then “Amber Waves of Grain”.

Finally, the “Crossroads of America” stuck and hung around for several years. However, I always thought it made Indiana sound like the place where Mississippi Blues men went to sell their eternal souls. 

I’d forgotten about that controversy until this year when I found my new home state of Tennessee in the midst of license plate controversy over the – somewhat ugly – new blue plate. 

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.

Tennessee flag with blue background. red flag with blue circle and three white stars
The Tennessee flag has three stars, which represent the state’s three grand divisions: East, Middle and West Tennessee (photo by Joseph Sohm/shutterstock.com)

What is the controversy over the new Tennessee license plate? 

It’s not over the new 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.

Read Also: Things to do in Tennessee: Best attractions throughout the state

What is the difference between the plates?

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.

Do TN license plates say In God We Trust?

If you want yours to, it will. Drivers have a choice.

But Tennessee isn’t alone in that. Many states offer the “In God We Trust” plate variants including Indiana, Florida, Utah, South Carolina and a bunch of others. 

Can a driver choose a different specialty plate? 

Sure. Tennessee has more than 100 types of license plates. 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 should be banned immediately. The license plate, not the universities. 

Read Also: How many national parks are in Tennessee? The surprising answer

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)

Why did they change the plate at all? 

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”.  

“This helps prevent duplicate issuance of sequences between the two plate types,” she stated.

Was this the only problem with the new Tennessee license plates? 

Do you mean besides the fact that they’re kind of ugly?

No. It turns out the new plates are difficult for traffic ticket cameras to read.

This resulted in a hitch in the effort to ticket drivers who speed past the cameras. 

a blue tn license plate that does no say in god we trust
The new Tennessee license plates are drawing a lot of attention for multiple reasons, including the fact that they are difficult for traffic cameras to read (photo by Rachel Taylor/TheSmokies.com) (Note: plate numbers have been altered for privacy)

How did they pick the new design, anyway? 

The same way you pick the winner of 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.

I mean, at least they didn’t pick “Wander” as the slogan.

Is the ‘In God We Trust’ variation popular? 

Yeah. I think it’s safe to say they are.

WBIR reported in the spring that 56%, out of two million plates issued, carried the national motto.

In East Tennessee, according to WBIR, this was especially true.

But more so in rural areas than in places like Knoxville. 

a stack of old license plates from various states
The law requires the state Department of Revenue to create new plates every eight years if the legislature provides the funding in the budget (photo by Leene/shutterstock.com)

Which license plate is on your car? 

Well, if you’re going to be personal about it, I am a bit of a scofflaw when it comes to the subject. 

I still have the old plate, curled up at both bottom edges from the times a softball bag strap hooked the plate and I didn’t realize it. My registration just expired.

Through a concoction of forgetfulness, indifference and procrastination, I rarely get my registration updated when I’m supposed to.

Over the years, it’s become something of a challenge to see how long I can go.

I’ve always eventually paid, usually after getting a ticket to force my hand when it’s especially inconvenient. 

This year, I’m a little curious about how long I can go as they change the plate colors.

My white plate will stick out more as the end of the year approaches. I’ve thought about waving the white flag and going to get the ugly new plate. But I haven’t done it yet. 

I will say, riding around with out-of-date tags leads me to believe law enforcement isn’t looking THAT hard.

Both my daughter and wife have the new plates. I never bothered to look and see which version they chose. 

Editor’s note: Letting your tags expire is not a tactic we recommend and is subject to fines.

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

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21 thoughts on “What is the controversy over Tennessee license plates, In God We Trust?”

  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.

  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

  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.

  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. 🙏😁

  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.

  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.

  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.

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

  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.

  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.

  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!!!

  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!

  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.

  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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