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NOTIONS: In God We Trust; all others risk their civil liberties

April 9, 2007

The other night, while my wife Cherí attended class, I ate out with a copy of NUVO to keep me company.

In the "letters" section, an atheist complained about Indiana's new "In God We Trust" license plate. He said government shouldn't promote religion, especially via a plate that requires no additional contribution, as do other "specialty" plates.

When I got home, I found an e-mail from a friend wondering why these plates are so popular and whether taxpayers should bear the cost.

I suppose some plate buyers are making political or religious statements. But I have another theory: Indiana's standard plate is ugly-a washed out farm scene with an unreadable Web address instead of a catchy slogan.

By contrast, "In God We Trust" plates feature rich colors, a patriotic flag and a legible, well-known tagline. In today's society, design rules, so many motorists will choose the prettier plate.

As for the lack of special fee, amen! For if this plate required government to play middleman for faith-based fund raising, the ACLU would file suit and state government would face a political nightmare deciding which faiths got how many dollars.

As it is, we have a plate featuring a slogan that's been the official U.S. motto since the Eisenhower Era (before that, America used the Founding Fathers' "E Pluribus Unum," meaning "Out of many, one").

We also know from the sectarian prayer lawsuit against Indiana's Speaker of the House that even the ACLU doesn't object to session-opening prayers to a non-sectarian God.

Bottom line: "In God We Trust" plates cost the same thing to manufacture as their bland counterparts. They don't endorse a particular religion. And unlike U.S. currency bearing the same phrase, no one's forced to use them.

On the other hand, you can thank God (or, if you prefer, five courageous legislators) that a more serious threat to civil liberties has died on the legislative vine.

Last week, the very Indiana General Assembly that offers us a godly license plate choice failed, by one vote in one committee, to let Indiana's masses decide, via referendum, whether to impose theocratic views on same-sex unions on a fraction of our fellow citizens.

That would have been a grievous error. And while it's dead for this year, it's likely to rear its prejudicial head again in 2008.

Throughout this debate, many political observers seem to have missed the big picture: We have a Constitution in this state. It includes a Bill of Rights. One of those rights says, "The General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens."

My wife and I enjoy the governmentgranted privilege of entering into a union. Having done so, we may receive insurance coverage from one another's employers, make certain health decisions for one another or inherit from one another with certain tax benefits. We're also protected should either of us become abusive toward the other.

Now, if the Bill of Rights means what it says, the General Assembly may not grant this privilege to Cherí and me and others in our heterosexual "class" without granting the same privilege to all citizens, including the "class" in which same-sex couples commit to one another.

Most who object to such unions cite religious beliefs. They proclaim: "God said homosexuality is wrong."

But it's not government's job to enforce sectarian dictates. On the contrary, Indiana's Constitution states, "no preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society or mode of worship."

Prior to the House committee vote last week, more than 1,000 people rallied at the Statehouse in support of the anti-gay marriage amendment. These citizens want to defy Indiana's Bill of Rights and enjoy, on religious grounds, a privilege denied to a subset of their fellow citizens.

But the voice of the masses is, and should forever remain, irrelevant when it comes to civil liberties.

Suppose you're a Christian. If 1,000 people said government should amend Indiana's Constitution so you couldn't worship Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, would you worry? No, because the Bill of Rights grants you liberty to worship as you please.

Suppose you're a gun owner. If 10,000 people said government should amend Indiana's Constitution so you couldn't possess a Colt 45, would you worry? No, because the Bill of Rights grants you the liberty to bear arms.

Now suppose you're gay. If a million people said government should amend Indiana's Constitution so you couldn't commit to the person you love as others commit to the ones they love, would you worry?

You betcha. Because last week's legislative vote had little to do with civil liberties and everything to do with technicalities.

So go ahead, Indiana. Bolt that "In God We Trust" plate to your back bumper. But watch in the rearview mirror as theocratic prejudice roars up behind you once again.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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