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April 30, 2009

The outfit behind Florida's "I Believe" License Plates

Michael Hussey and I have been investigating Faith in Teaching, an obscure non-profit dedicated to putting Christian slogans on state license plates and distributing the proceeds to religious groups.

Ever heard of these people? Floridians, we welcome your tips.

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Are atheist groups given the same opportunity?

In theory, yes. Florida has a program where non-profits can submit license plate designs. Drivers have the option of paying $25.00 extra for a custom plate. The money goes to the non-profit to spend on its mission, whatever that is. In order to qualify, a group has to raise $60,000 to cover the costs of production and get a professional survey to prove that at least X number of people would be willing to buy such a thing.

I'm less concerned about the religious imagery than I am about the fact that the state is creating revenue streams with minimal oversight for obscure non-profits. It's not inherently evil, but it's troubling. Basically, what seems to have happened in this case is that a clique of politically well-connected Republicans managed to get their state senator to introduce legislation adding their ad hoc non-profit to the program. The group, FIT, seems to exist only as a clearinghouse for the money. FIT says it will divide the money among faith-based groups, but it hasn't offered any details on which ones, or what kind of programs.

There's nothing inherently illegal or immoral about creating a non-profit to take advantage of the program as long as the money actually goes to legitimate charities. Still it is a golden opportunity for political patronage and a back door way of subsidizing religious activities. In this case the state is acting as a pass-through and the non-profit covers the costs of developing and marketing the plates, so public money isn't going to religious education--but they are getting a valuable assist. What qualifies these people to divvy up the money to other charities?

I asked a few people about this and they heard nothing about Faith In Teaching. This is a nonprofit with no official office and a web site that is down. The media has cover the church and state angle. No one asked who or what is FIT.

Is there a distinction in Florida between a non-profit and a charity? In Canada, a non-profit puts profits back into their organization. That organization is not necessarily charitable, although a charitable organization can be a non-profit corporation instead of a charitable foundation. Charitable designation is a separate tax status that is granted or denied through a separate application process that evaluates the purposes of the society.

The next question to ask is whether this non-profit has any fully owned subsidiaries?

suzib -

In the US, the legal term is for a charity is a "501(c)3."

An organization qualifying as one means people can donate anonymously, as much money as they want. Also, that these donors can get tax deductions.

Churches and other religious organization can be 501(c)3s. So can educational groups, and groups which provide social services.

These organizations can't legally endorse political candidates while being 501(c)3s.

Is there a distinction in Florida between a non-profit and a charity? In Canada, a non-profit puts profits back into their organization. That organization is not necessarily charitable, although a charitable organization can be a non-profit corporation instead of a charitable foundation.

So, if this is a vanity plate, I wonder what the State of Florida would say if I were request one that said " NO GOD"?

Can we just ditch all the stupid decoration and stick with the purpose that license plates were intended to serve? A car should have a unique identification visible at a maximum possible distance, period. No vanity plates and no charity plates. No one needs to know what breed of dog you like, that you're a lawyer or dentist, that you're a fan of your state college's football team, that the car is "teds vett", or a "59 chev". It's lovely that you support salmon restoration, or that you're a purple heart vet, or a member of the volunteer fire dept, but tell me somewhere else besides your license plate. Everyone already knows that Minnesota is the "land of 10000 lakes", that New Mexico is the "land of enchantment" and that Idaho produces "famous potatoes". (Idaho, seriously, you're the "gem state", WTF were you thinking?) No one needs pictures of Georgia peaches, Oregon Douglas firs or Washington's Mt. Rainier cluttering up what should be CLEARLY LEGIBLE. Enough!

What's really great is when you are driving from Minneapolis to Winnepeg, and your own "10,000 Lakes" license plate makes you feel somewhat inadequate as the Manitobans whiz by you, with plates reading "100,000 Lakes"!

Nice thought.
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Barb Scott
real estate

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