Tennessee considers four options for new license plate, allows motorists to vote

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Sep. 21—NASHVILLE — As he prepares to make the first full-fledged overhaul to Tennessee license tags in nearly 16 years, Gov. Bill Lee is asking residents to "rate the plates" of his administration's four proposed redesigns.

"As Tennessee celebrates 225 years of statehood, it's a perfect time to redesign our license plate and feature the tri-star that represents each of our state's unique grand divisions," Lee said Monday in a news release. "We welcome all Tennesseans to cast their vote and play a role in choosing this piece of our state's history."

Voting on the new designs began at tn.gov/governor/rate-the-plates on Monday and continues for a week. The winning design will be announced later this fall and become available to motorists in January.

Under state law, the license plate is redesigned every eight years if funds are approved in the General Assembly's annual budget.

But Tennessee's standard license plate has remained largely the same since January 2006, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, discarded the previous tag approved by former Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican.

Sundquist's chosen tag prominently featured a rising orange sun. Critics griped that "sun" alluded to part of Sundquist's name. It didn't help that the tag resembled the then-governor's campaign signs.

Bredesen, an outdoorsman, replaced it with a more soothing green color displaying mountains in the background with black lettering. While that's been tweaked over the years, it's remained largely the same. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam never sought to push a total plate revamp.

In 2017, Republican lawmakers added optional language stating "In God We Trust."

The wording became optional for vehicle owners after bill sponsors learned that mandating the language on all plates was likely to conflict with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government establishment of religion.

Sponsors, who initially dismissed the issue, later sought a legal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. He opined that "an operator of a vehicle that displays a registration plate bearing the phrase 'In God We Trust' conveys a message that could be viewed as a religious affirmation of the operator's belief in God."

They relented and it became optional and available at the same cost as the standard plate.

Lee is asking Tennesseans to weigh in on four new designs. Gone is the Bredesen green, replaced by different combinations of mostly white or blue plates with different ways to display the three stars from the Tennessee state flag, which represent east, middle and west Tennessee.

Images provided by the Lee administration on all four show them featuring the "In God We Trust" language. The accompanying news release notes the "statute provides that Tennesseans may select an 'In God We Trust' plate option."

Lee spokespersons clarified Monday evening that Tennesseans may also select to not have the "In God We Trust" motto.

There are directions in state law on what a plate must include: They require the tag display the word "Tennessee" as well as "Volunteer State" and "TNvacation.com."

Other must-haves on the tag include the county name and spaces for the decals showing the month when the registration expires and must be renewed.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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