PHOENIX – When Arizonans buy a license plate displaying the words “In God We Trust,” they are told the money promotes the motto, First Amendment rights “and the heritage of this state and nation.”
What they may not know is the money supports Alliance Defending Freedom, a controversial group based in Scottsdale whose mission statement is “to keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”
Because of that affiliation, one Democratic lawmaker now is proposing to get rid of the “In God We Trust” specialty license plates.
ADF is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its anti-LGBT views and claims that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy society.
ADF defended its mission and responded to the call to get rid of the Arizona license plate in a written statement.
“It’s disappointing to see elected officials become uncritical pawns in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ugly propaganda campaigns,” said Jeremy Tedesco, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel and vice president of U.S. Advocacy.
Tedesco said Southern Poverty Law Center mischaracterizes his group’s work.
“Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for the freedom of all Americans to peacefully live in accordance with their beliefs, including those with no belief,” Tedesco said. “We represent people from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds.”
ADF has been involved in a host of culture-war court cases: a challenge to the Obama administration directive that public schools allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice; the Hobby Lobby case regarding businesses’ right not to provide contraception coverage to their employees for religious reasons; and Arizona’s law defining marriage as between only a man and a woman.
Most recently, it has been involved in the state Supreme Court case challenging Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinancefor gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Is Phoenix’s non-discrimination ordinance a violation of freedom or a necessary measure that protects minority groups against discrimination?
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama, named the ADF a hate group in 2016 because of its “demonization of LGBT people” and “support of criminalization of gay sex in the U.S. and abroad.”
The center has written extensively about ADF and states that it “does not name groups to its anti-LGBT hate list simply for having biblical objections to homosexuality or for opposing same-sex marriage.”
How the plates fund ADF
The specialty “In God We Trust” license plates are among many in Arizona offered to drivers through the Department of Transportation. Like the others, the plates offer $17 of the $25 purchase price to particular causes.
Secular Coalition for Arizona, a group that opposes religion in government, requested that Democratic state Sen. Juan Mendez obtain data regarding exactly where the money from the “In God We Trust” plates has been directed.
ADOT only says on its website that money from the specialty plate promotes the national motto “In God We Trust,” First Amendment rights, “and the heritage of this state and nation.”
A few other plates, among dozens offered by the state through ADOT, don’t include explicit statements about what organization gets the money, though the recipient is noted in statute.
ADOT records that Alliance Defending Freedom has received more than $900,000 from the specialty plates since 2014.
“We were appalled by it,” said Tory Roberg, the director of government affairs for the Secular Coalition for Arizona. “People really need to know where their money is going.”
She said she did not know anyone who has the plate on their vehicle.
Secular Coalition for Arizona did not obtain, and ADOT could immediately provide, earlier records dating back to the plate’s inception in 2008.
A spreadsheet from ADOT indicates 53,205 sales or renewals of the plate since 2014.
ADF reported income of nearly $56 million in 2017, so the Arizona plates are a small part of its budget.
The plates were approved by the Legislature in 2008 following a floor amendment from former Republican Sen. Ron Gould, Roberg said.
The state law that resulted from Gould’s amendment does not specify ADF as the recipient of the money. It says only that the money will go to the Arizona non-profit that gives ADOT $32,000 to implement the plate.
Other plates, such as those supporting amateur radio, the environment and the military, were created with statutes that name specifically where the money goes in addition to the state highway fund.
ADOT spokesman Doug Nick confirmed Tuesday that group receiving the money from the “In God We Trust” plate is ADF.
Bills target license plates
Mendez has introduced one bill to require ADOT to more fully disclose where the money from specialty plates goes and another to eliminate the ADF plate.
“Hopefully in the future we can put in place some commonsense guidelines that would bar hate groups from earning money through Arizona license plates,” Mendez said in a press release.
“State dollars should not be funding an organization that works to strip residents of our state of their human rights and human dignity. It’s appalling that we’ve already sent over a million dollars to this extremist hate group.”
Tedesco, from ADF, said the plates are appropriate.
“Arizona is well within its rights to offer its citizens an opportunity to voluntarily purchase license plates affirming the First Amendment and contributing to ADF’s work on behalf of the freedom of all Americans to live and work according to their beliefs,” he said.
Secular Coalition for Arizona is planning a petition and billboard campaign regarding the ADF license plate and is recruiting like-minded churches and groups to the cause.
“What do people not understand about the inappropriateness of this kind of fundamentalist-inspired, state-sanctioned discrimination?” said David Felten, a pastor at the Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, in a press release from the coalition.
“This is not just an abstract violation of church-state separation. It’s a very real rejection of Arizona’s LGBTQ people by the very government that is supposed to impartially support and protect all of its citizens.”
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