Florida is a strange state. I know: I grew up there. As a largely rural, southern state that relies on tourism and retirement communities for much of its income, it has an odd mix of liberalism and conservatism, of northern sensibility and bible-belt fanaticism. The state’s capital, Tallahassee, displays that mixture well — its location in the “panhandle” puts it smack in the bible belt, near southern Georgia and Alabama; the presence of legislators from all over the state and of Florida State University gives it ideological variety and an academic spin. Where I grew up, on the southeast coast... well, think of it as a slice of New York and a slice of eastern Canada made into a sandwich on Cuban bread.
So I’m not used to the part of Florida that wants to put Jesus on its license plates. Well, not for everyone; only for those who want to have “a picture of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ” there. The St Petersburg Times reports that a bill to authorize some religious-oriented “specialty” license plates has passed the state’s Senate, but the proposal in the House was withdrawn.
What’s disturbing isn’t just the idea that you can get Jesus, or a cross and a stained-glass window, on your official state license plate... as one of the senators who proposed them notes, there are plenty of specialty plates with all kinds of symbols promoting all kinds of organizations. It’s more disturbing that the state is collecting money from registrants and distributing it to religious organizations. And it’s disturbing to see the fervor with which the legislators are pushing these things.
Senator Siplin suggests, “If you don’t like that particular license plate, you’re not forced to buy it.” But it’s not as simple as that. Even if you don’t choose to buy one, your state is still promoting Christianity, specifically, and is sponsoring the funding of religious organizations.
I’m not sure whether she intended her comment the way I’ve decided to interpret it, but Senator Larcenia Bullard, a Miami Democrat, nails it with this:
What if someone comes next year and decides to vote on something that has the devil on it, and horns, horns on each side. I know that people are called the devil, but if the symbol of a devil is on it, I would not vote for that.Indeed. The basic problem here is that state officials are in the business of approving and disapproving designs, and their decisions come down to individual sensibilities, preferences, beliefs. Because it shouldn’t matter whether we’re talking about Jesus or the devil, a “Fightin’ Gator” or a real manatee. As I see it, the basic problem is that these specialty plates exist at all. A Republican senator from Tampa, Victor Crist, suggests small stickers that can be added to standard license plates, replacing the specialty plates and giving people the option of pushing two causes, rather than just one.
But no. The right answer is to take the state out of it completely. Stop trying to make money from people’s convictions. License plates are official devices, meant for a specific purpose that doesn’t include advertising.
All states should go back to having one standard, non-partisan license plate. Then if someone wants to save the manatees, crow about one university or another, show off one’s piety, or advertise for Cypress Gardens, one can buy an old-fashioned bumper sticker — or two, or three, or more — and slap it on the car.
Now, as the St Pete Times writer chides, legislators, get back to worrying about budget impasses and property insurance.