Friday, August 01, 2003

Trust, But Verify-Florida must lead the nation in specialty plates, which sell for extra money that goes to support various charitable efforts. You'll see cars with plates supporting various state colleges, education in general, Columbia/Challenger memorials, endangered panthers and manatees, et al. I've got the hot-button (for ACLU types) Choose Life plate on my car, with the proceeds going to crisis pregnancy centers. Somebody wants "Trust God" to be the next in the mix
Susanne Hilton, 46, who attends Morningside Church in Port St. Lucie, wants the state Legislature to approve a "Trust God" license plate, with the profits used for religious purposes, the Associated Press (AP) reported. She said money collected from the sale of the plates would go to Christian radio stations and charities through her nonprofit organization, The God Connection. If approved, the tag would sell for $25, in addition to the cost of vehicle registration.
Three problems with that. The first is that starts to get close to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. A tight reading of the Constitution would allow a religious charity to raise money on the same footing as secular charities. The Bright Foundation could sell "Trust Yourself" plates if they wanted. However, you know that Sandy Baby isn't going to buy that plate, so this isn't one you want to spend political capital on. The second reason is that this smells a little bit of spiritual entrepreneurship. If it were a well-recognized Christian charity that were behind this (Salvation Army of Samaritan's Purse) I could see it, but I see Ms. Hilton getting a nice salary for overseeing the millions of dollars coming in from the plates. Even if her attentions are honorable, things seem a little fly-by-night. The web site is pretty but sparse and dedicated to the plate cause. Their money seems to be going to putting up some of those black-and-white God billboards along Florida's east coast. The third is that the proceeds seem to be designed for a PR campaign rather than traditional charitable work. The proceeds of the Choose Life plates go for counseling and financial aid to (largely) single moms who need help bringing a baby into the world rather than aborting it. Other plate's proceeds go for tangible stuff as well. In the Choose Life case, the state has a legit secular interest in looking after single mothers; sponsoring an evangelistic campaign from plate proceeds is starting to step over the line. There are alternative ways of doing that. In Florida, we only have license plates on the back of our cars, leaving the front plate spots free for whatever message you want. I've seen a few people with other specialty plates on the rear (a veterans plate was one I saw) have a front plate mock-up of the Choose Life plate with the plate number "IM 4 IT." They could sell Trust God plates for the front of the car at churches and Christian bookstores. However, that doesn't get free distribution from all the license plate offices.

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