Arizona already has the word "God" in its motto, albeit in Latin. But the word could soon show up on some license plates.
The Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that requires the state Department of Transportation to produce license plates that say "In God We Trust" if some organization comes up with the design costs. The 18-10 vote sends HB2046 to the House for final approval.
Arizona's motto is "Ditat Deus" - literally, "God Enriches."
But Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said the idea for the plain English version came to him earlier this month when he saw an Indiana license plate with "In God We Trust."
"I thought that would be a nice thing to put on a license plate," he said.
The legality of the issue is unclear. Having an official government proclamation of that wording could run afoul of constitutional prohibitions against a state religion.
Gould got the opportunity to propose the plate when the Senate was considering legislation to create a special license plate for Arizona Highways magazine. Of the $25 extra annual fee, $8 would go to the state in administrative fees, with the balance a donation to keep the magazine afloat.
His added language says that if any group comes up with $32,000 - the fee set by ADOT for doing the design work on all special plates - ADOT would have to design an "In God We Trust" plate and offer it for sale. But unlike some other specialty plates - like for university alumni groups, various charities and special causes like spaying and neutering pets - the $17 left after ADOT's fee would go not to a particular group but to the state highway fund to build and maintain roads.
Gould called that an acceptable way to come up with more dollars for transportation.
ADOT lobbyist Kevin Biesty said the proposal is under review. The "very generic" wording that mirrors what courts have already declared proper on U.S. currency works in its favor, he said. Peter Gentala, counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy which has been defending a "Choose Life" license plate, said the way this plate is being created could run into constitutional issues.
Gentala noted the "Choose Life" plate was requested by a coalition of anti-abortion groups. And approval was sought not from lawmakers but the state's separate License Plate Commission.
By contrast, he said, it would be the Legislature, on its own, creating the "In God We Trust" plate and choosing the message.
"Does that mean it's the government 'speaking'? '' he asked.
"Or does that mean it's a private party?" with the Legislature simply responding.
There have been some legal challenges to that same phrase on U.S. currency. But they have all been turned away by federal appellate courts, ruling that have been left undisturbed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That includes a 1970 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the circuit that includes Arizona. The judges concluded that the phrase on the money "has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion."
"Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise," the court concluded.
As it turns out, there is a lawsuit by the ACLU challenging the Indiana license plate that inspired Gould. But in that case, the outcome could turn not on the wording but on the fact the state did not charge the same administrative fee to issue that license plate as they do for others.
That is not an issue here, as Gould's bill subjects any organization willing to sponsor an "In God We Trust" plate to the same fees and restrictions as any other organization.