PHOENIX — Arizona already has the word "God" in its motto, albeit in Latin.
It could soon show up on some license plates, not as "Ditat Deus" — literally, "God Enriches," but in plain English.
The Senate on Tuesday approved legislation which requires the state Department of Transportation to produce license plates which say "In God We Trust" if some organization comes up with the design costs. The 18-10 vote sends HB 2046 to the House for final approval.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said the idea came to him earlier this month when he saw an Indiana license plate with the same message.
"I thought that would be a nice thing to put on a license plate," he said.
Gould got to convert that thought to action 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 keeping the magazine afloat.
His added language says 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 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.
The legality of the action, however, remains unclear.
"It's currently being reviewed," said ADOT lobbyist Kevin Biesty.
Working in its favor, he said, is the "very generic" wording, verbiage that mirrors what courts already have declared proper on U.S. currency. And the actual design of the plate would be left up to his agency.
Dan Pochoda, legal director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was unaware of the proposal until Tuesday. He said his organization is reviewing it.
And even Peter Gentala, counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy, said the way this plate is being created could run into constitutional issues.
Gentala's organization has been actively involved in defending the legality of a different license plate, one that would have the message "Choose Life."
But he said that may be legally distinguishable from what Gould is trying to do.
Gentala noted the "Choose Life" plate was requested by a coalition of antiabortion 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.
The difference could be significant: Having an official government proclamation of that wording could be seen as running afoul constitutional prohibitions against a state religion.
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.