News Law and Policy

Funding Hate: GOP License Plate Programs Pour Funds Into Fringe Groups

Alys Brooks

Democrats in Arizona and Tennessee are pushing back on license plate programs that fund anti-LGBTQ and pro-Confederate causes.

Johnny Martin didn’t think anything of his father’s Arizona “In God We Trust” license plates until he discovered part of the renewal fee goes to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a hate group that opposes LGTBQ rights.

It hit close to home for Martin because the organization’s legal efforts oppose his upcoming marriage to his fiancée, Ricardo.

“It was hurtful to find out that a message I would otherwise feel comfortable, even comforted by, [funds this group]. That’s a comforting message to me, ‘In God We Trust,’” Martin told Rewire.News. “Now when I see that, this is literally just a funding mechanism for an organization that already has tons of money, by the way, and doesn’t need to go about it in such a shady way.”

He was glad his father immediately agreed that having the plates were a problem.

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“Right away, the first time I talked to him after this all came out, he said, ‘I want you to know, I’m getting a new license plate,’” Martin said. He cautioned about jumping to conclusions when seeing the plate on someone’s car because many drivers, like his father, don’t know where the funds go.

Specialty license plates that fund nonprofits aren’t unusual—many states have dozens supporting causes like organ donation and wildlife conservation. But some license plates fund groups that promote hate and misinformation, as ADF has done since the 1990s. And now state-level Democratic lawmakers are hitting back against license plate programs that fund these causes.

Since 2011, ADF has received over $1 million through Arizona’s license plate program, according to data compiled by the office of state Sen. Juan Mendez (D-Tempe). The license plates fund only a small portion of ADF’s $50 million annual budget.

ADF has vehemently opposed marriage equality in the United States and has defended the sterilization of transgender people overseas, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Undeterred by U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the ADF’s scorched earth campaign against anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in the United States and support for criminalizing gay sex worldwide has led the SPLC to designate it an anti-LGBTQ hate group. In Arizona, the organization is defending Brush & Nib Studio, a store specializing in custom wedding invitations. The shop’s owners preemptively challenged Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinance to ensure they could discriminate against LGBTQ couples. Martin mentioned this case as an example of how the organization fights against the rights of his fellow Arizonans.

“I’ve been involved with advocacy for expanding nondiscrimination protections,” he said. “I find it to be really frustrating when an organization not only doesn’t understand the importance, but specifically puts efforts to exclude people and have certain groups lose their rights.”

Mendez, who sponsored a bill that would repeal the plates, told Rewire.News that the bill wasn’t a “knee-jerk reaction” to finding out the plates funded ADF. After talking to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and nonreligious people, he decided the plates clashed with the values of many groups across his district.

“We definitely wanted to be sure this is something we could have a large community come out and take a stand against [this plate],” Mendez said.

In addition to SB 1463, the bill eliminating the “In God We Trust” plates, Mendez is sponsoring legislation that would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to list the organizations receiving the proceeds from each specialty license plate. Neither Mendez nor Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition of Arizona said they had much hope for the short-term prospects of either bill because the Republican-majority legislature is unlikely to bring them to the floor. The transparency bill has gone to the transportation and rules committees, but the bill repealing the license plate has not been assigned to a committee. If the transparency bill doesn’t move forward, Mendez plans to attach it as an amendment to bills introducing new specialty plates.

Though the bill faces long odds, Martin hopes greater awareness will lead Arizona drivers to choose different plates. The Secular Coalition of Arizona has paid for billboards and a website, www.licenseplatehate.org, to alert residents to where the funding goes.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, Democrats are challenging the state’s Confederate flag license plates, which are more popular than ever and which are helping fund a lawsuit against the city of Memphis, according to the Tennessean. The plate’s proceeds go to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization claiming that the “soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America.” The group is suing Memphis for $30 million after the removal of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general and KKK Grand Wizard, along with several plaques.

State Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) filed legislation this month for the second consecutive year to end the issuing of Confederate license plates in Tennessee. The bill has made little progress in the GOP-dominated Tennessee legislature.

Unlike the ADF, a majority of the funding for the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Tennessee division comes through license plates—62 percent in fiscal year 2016, according to financial filings required by the IRS. A Memphis chapter of the organization dedicated to the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial receives less than $50,000 in revenue and doesn’t need to submit detailed information to the IRS.

In Wisconsin, “Choose Life” license plates fund anti-choice clinics across the state, including organizations that NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin caught lying to undercover volunteers in 2013. Since the plates were made available in late 2017, about $28,000 went to Choose Life Wisconsin, the organization that distributes the funds to deceptive anti-choice pregnancy centers. It’s a small amount for well-funded fake clinics—for example, CareNet Pregnancy Center of Dane County had $749,980 in revenue in 2016—but it could grow as more Wisconsinites have a chance to get new plates.

The case of Wisconsin illustrates the uphill battle reproductive rights advocates face after a decade of GOP dominance at the state level. Even if major restrictions on abortion were repealed, many states would still have a range of anti-choice policies, such as license plates that help fund clinics that lie to pregnant people. It’s not just states with Republican legislative majorities that have license plate programs that funnel money into anti-choice organizations. For example, New Jersey, a state with a pro-choice legislative majority and a governor who last year restored funding for Planned Parenthood, has “Choose Life” license plates.

In contrast to Tennessee and Arizona, there’s little momentum challenging Wisconsin’s “Choose Life” plates. State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), former director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, said she’s unaware of any efforts to challenge the plates, and Gov. Tony Evers’ (D) office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Plates that fund controversial causes often ride along with more popular plates.

Arizona’s “In God We Trust” plate was enacted with vague wording as to the revenue’s ultimate destination. Former Republican state Sen. Ron Gould (Lake Havasu City) in 2008 sponsored legislation that created the license plate, describing the beneficiary as an organization promoting the motto “In God We Trust.”

ADF released a statement saying legislators sponsoring the “In God We Trust” plate were open about the ultimate recipient of the funding. But they didn’t respond to repeated requests to clarify what comments they were talking about. ADF was not mentioned in any media coverage of the bills at the time, nor in legislative footage reviewed by Rewire.News.

The widespread “Choose Life” plates began in Florida and involved a similarly opaque process. While the plates were first passed in 1999 with an anti-choice message, the funds went to individual counties, which distributed the money to agencies that promote adoption. In 2011, a law diverted the revenue to Choose Life Inc. to be disbursed to anti-choice clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers. It was part of a wave of 18 anti-choice bills, including symbolic long shots like a total ban on abortion. It’s unclear how aware plate owners were of this change in funding. The plate, which had ranged from eighth to tenth most popular in total sales, dropped to 11th the year after the bill and kept dropping until it reached its 2018 rank of 23rd. The program still provides a steady stream of money to these clinics: $391,620 in 2018.

When Wisconsin’s “Choose Life” license plate was first proposed in 2013, it drew widespread attention and critical coverage in the local press about the organization that would receive the funding, and the bill failed. But in 2016, Wisconsin legislators approved an expedited process for adding specialty license plates. Subeck was one of the lawmakers to support the measure. She was equivocal about her vote, noting that it allowed the approval of a variety of specialty license plates for causes she supports that would have languished in the legislative process.

“I actually suspect that given the strongly Republican legislature, that the plates would have happened regardless,” she said.

Anti-choice activists used this process to get the “Choose Life” plate approved, making it the first plate to take advantage of the new procedure. Only 500 signatures are required, one quarter of the minimum number of signatures to run for statewide offices (2,000) and slightly more than required to run for state senator (400). The group needs to pay $15,500 to cover the costs of creating a new license plate.

According to the Post-Crescent, the plate was submitted in October 2016 and netted 26 complaints during a 30-day review period, leaving the transportation committees in both legislative houses 14 days to notify the Division of Motor Vehicles that it had scheduled a meeting to discuss the objections. Based on a review of the committees’ agendas, neither met publicly during the review period, and the plate was approved by default.

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