The strange story of how Colorado is set to get ‘In God We Trust’ license plates

Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird holds an oversized example of the “In God We Trust” license plate recently authorized by the state legislature. (Andrew Kenney / CPR News)

Sen. Mark Baisley stood in a hallway just off the state House chamber, peering in keenly as statehouse representatives took up final voting on a particularly contentious measure on one of the last days of the legislative session.

“I tried to talk my way (in), but they said I can stand over here in the corner,” he laughed. When final votes are underway, outsiders aren’t allowed to walk around the chamber — even if they’re state senators like Baisley.

Baisley had come to watch the fate of Senate Bill 25, one of a handful of measures he sponsored this year. The Republican senator had had a remarkably successful session in the Democratic-controlled capitol, sponsoring nine other bills that passed the legislature.

But SB23-025 was perhaps the biggest question mark on his agenda this year. The measure, which would allow the state to sell license plates emblazoned with the slogan “In God We Trust,” had been snarled in the political process.

“I’m not certain,” he whispered. “I'm gonna say I'm 75 percent sure it will pass.”

These so-called “license plate bills” are a running joke in the legislature, since lawmakers must individually approve each new design — a task some find trivial.

The state offers 50 “special group” license plates, with themes ranging from “Italian American Heritage” to supporting pollinators, foster families,  Pueblo chiles and the troops — all individually authorized by the state’s lawmakers. (That’s in addition to dozens more for alumni of various institutions, military veterans and others.)

But the In God We Trust plate had taken on a life of its own. It became both a topic of philosophical debate — would issuing such plates be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion or a matter of free speech? — as well as a political bargaining chip in the heated negotiations over much bigger stuff in the House.

Baisley, who calls himself a constitutional conservative, had first introduced the bill last year  — but Democrats allowed it to languish in a committee for months, causing it to run out of time. This year, Baisley tried a new strategy: He recruited a Democratic ally, Rep. Shannon Bird, a member of the influential Joint Budget Committee. 

“She said she would not buy one for her car but she totally defends the First Amendment right of others to do so,” Baisley said. 

By the end of April, the bill had passed the Senate and crossed over into the House — where Baisley heard surprising news. Originally, he had recruited Rep. Matthew Soper as his Republican cosponsor in that chamber. Soper is perceived as one of the more moderate members of the delegation.

But Baisley soon learned that House Republican leaders wanted Soper to let another GOP colleague take his place on the bill — Rep. Scott Bottoms. 

Bottoms is a pastor and one of the furthest right members of the caucus. He is disliked by many Democrats because of his long speeches on topics like abortion, including one where he called Democrats ‘fascists.’ 

Baisley worried that having Bottoms on the bill would hurt its chances. But House Republican leadership told him it would be a good move: “They said, ‘Well, we're trying to give Rep. Bottoms a win because he’s been battling hard, and his [other] bills have all been killed.’”

Indeed, the four measures Bottoms originally sponsored this year — including ones to ban abortion and reduce the income tax rate — had all been defeated.

Rep. Mike Lynch, the minority leader, confirmed that part of the idea was to get the first-term lawmaker a victory on a conservative cause. “He hadn’t had [passed] a bill,” Lynch said.

Bottoms said he had been glad to accept the offer. “Of course, I immediately jumped on it,” he said. “I think God started our country, and we ratified it by acknowledging that our rights don't come from humans — they come from God.”

But the pastor worried, he said, that there would be a catch. “Was there any qualifiers on this?” Bottoms asked after he was offered a spot as prime sponsor. And, indeed, there was something of a string attached — Democrats had requested that Bottoms consider giving fewer lengthy speeches on the House floor, according to both Lynch and Bottoms.

Democratic Majority Leader Monica Duran declined to get into the specifics, but she said: “At the end of the day, there’s negotiations going on on the floor at all times, right?” she said. And sometimes, she said, those negotiations include a suggestion that someone stop filibustering.

Bottoms said that he refused to go along with the suggestion. “I would rather you take me off of [the bill] than use it as some kind of bully leverage against me,” he said. But, nonetheless, his name stayed on it, and the measure marched forward.

Some Democrats voted against the bill, though they gave little comment on why. A single Republican, Rep. Stephanie Luck, was opposed. (Luck is Christian, but worries that allowing this kind of expression in license plates could open the door for other groups to advance messages she doesn’t support.)

But, ultimately, it squeezed through.

“I'm one happy boy. This is a huge moment,” Baisley said as he watched the final vote. “I know that we have some retired Air Force colonels that are watching this live right now, and they're jumping up and down. This is, I think, a real emotional time for a lot of veterans, (for) a lot of patriots.”

Rep. Bird, the Democratic sponsor, declined to comment on the politicking behind the bill — for example, as her cosponsor Baisley suggested, had she used her clout to help it clear an earlier hangup at a Senate committee?

“I will just say that many of us believe in free speech, freedom of expression and to display our national motto should be a no-brainer for us here in Colorado,” Bird said. 

Baisley has never had a vanity plate himself, unless you count the special plates issued for state lawmakers. But he plans to get this one, even if it means paying the government $50 for the privilege — kind of funny, he admits, for a constitutional conservative.

“It sure is,” he said. “It’s more institutionalized than a bumper sticker, but it's a way to express something of yourself.”

The bill awaits the governor’s signature. If it’s signed, the plates will go on sale in 2024, alongside other new designs — including one with a stegosaurus on it. By the way: The phrase “In God We Trust,” has been the official national motto since 1956, when it replaced e pluribus unum, which means “from many, one.”  There’s no license plate for that one.