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December 23, 2008

GSUSLVSU, and so does the driver of this car

In South Carolina, a district court has temporarily halted the production of state-sponsored license plates that declare "I Believe" and feature an illustration of a cross superimposed on a stained-glass window.

In Vermont, meanwhile, an appeals court is mulling whether a vanity plate featuring John 3:16, the verse about Jesus saving the world, should be permitted on that state's roads.

And in Arizona, a court has ruled it's OK to give residents the option of having the words "Choose Life" on state plates.

The question is no longer, "What Would Jesus Drive?" Now, it's more likely to be, "What's on his license plate?"

Across the country, the small metal plates affixed to car bumpers have become the latest battleground for church-state disputes and questions of free speech.

"It's hard to draw a line between what is government speech and what is private speech when it comes to license plates," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington. "Some people want to use their license plate to proclaim their beliefs and that puts the state in an awkward position because if they allow one message then they have to allow others."

The South Carolina case is one of the more unusual -- and overt -- examples of religious speech on a license plate. The "I Believe" phrase and accompanying artwork were adopted unanimously by the state legislature, prompting a lawsuit by the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Unitarian, Jewish and Christian clergy and the Hindu American Foundation.

"I know some may quickly label this as an anti-Christian suit and I don't think that that's what is at issue," explained Suhag Shukla, legal counsel for the Maryland-based Hindu group. "It was more the state endorsement of religion, and such a blatant endorsement of religion."

U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie sided with the religious groups in a Dec. 15 opinion, halting distribution of the plates while the legal process continues.

"... (J)ust as a reasonable, objective observer would likely conclude that the state of South Carolina was promoting tourism with the Web site address 'Travel2SC.com' on its standard-issue plate," she wrote, "that same observer could reasonably believe the state is promoting Christianity through its legislatively-created and DMV-designed and marketed `I Believe' plate."

Beth Parks, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, said the state has complied with the preliminary injunction, which directed the department to remove advertising about the plate from its Web site.

"The people who submitted the $5 pre-paid application ... are receiving refunds," she said.

Beyond disputes over state-sanctioned specialty plates, Vermont driver Shawn Byrne is waiting for an appeals court to decide if he can use letters and symbols on his own vanity plate to spread the gospel. He hopes to put "JOHN316," "JN316" or "JN36TN" on his vehicle.

"Everybody knows when they're driving down the road and they see a vanity plate that this person behind the wheel is speaking, not the state," said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, who defended Byrne at a Dec. 8 hearing.

Already, courts have permitted individuals to speak through specialized plates with messages to "Choose Life" sponsored by organizations such as the Arizona Life Coalition.

Arizona officials had initially rejected a "Choose Life" license plate, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that policy amounted to viewpoint discrimination. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Arizona officials. More than a dozen states offer "Choose Life" plates and more are considering them.

Texas lawmakers are considering a bill to create a "Choose Life" specialty license plate that would raise money for women considering adoption. "The majority of Texans believe in the sanctity of life, and this license plate will give them a means to tell the world in a subtle but meaningful way, while providing support to pregnant women making the decision to chose adoption," Gov. Rick Perry said at a Dec. 18 news conference.

As the issue of putting faith and morality on license plates wends its way through courts and legislatures, experts differ on how significant the disputes are.

Albert Menendez, editor of Voice of Reason, the newsletter of Americans for Religious Liberty, said he views the question of government supporting faith-based programs, or religious symbols on public property, as more prominent.

"It seems, to me, far more important than license plates," he said, "but symbolism is important in America."

But Elizabeth Stevens, an attorney with Americans United, ranks the "I Believe" case right up there with former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's unsuccessful attempt to keep a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse.

"It was physically larger (and) it's only in one place, but these plates, theoretically, could have been on cars all over the state," she said.

Vanity plates appear on more than 9.3 million U.S. motor vehicles, according to a joint study by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and the Web site LCNS2ROM.com, and officials say the interest in messages-in-motion is only likely to continue.

"People are certainly passionate about license plates," said Jason D. King, spokesman for the association. "They are vehicles for personal expression."

Comments

Other than vulgarity the State and or Federal Government should not discriminate in freedom of speech on license plates or anywhere else. Anyone should have the right to agree or disagree with me and express that in an appropriate manner; I should also have the right to agree or disagree and express that in an appropriate manner. Personal opinions and expressions made in a polite manner should be taken simply as personal opinions and expressions. If “personalized” license plates are allowed they should be taken as such and not a message from the government. The reasonable alternative is simply a plain license plate that is standard for everyone and no “personalized” plates at all. The freedoms enjoyed in the U.S.A. are in serious danger if the government or any group of citizens demands we all be shaped by the same mold. If everyone is limited to what a group or government wants expressed, there is no true “diversity”. I can respect someone expressing a different opinion or belief than mine but that same “tolerance” must work both ways for true liberty to prevail.

"I Believe" could mean in UFOs, or the X Files, let alone any specific religion. It is not specific enough to ban. The first amendment only forbids an establishment of a State or National religion. It does not forbid "the people", who make up the State, to have or to express their faith.

The state of Florida rammed through a "Choose Life" auto-tag back when Jeb Bush was Governor. It was "approved" before the argument could be fully discussed, and those of us that thought there was room for equal expression, suggested that there be a tag stating: "Choose Choice". But this all went down while the 'Religious Right' was running rampantly through the country. Scary!
I often think that auto tags/plates should return to their regulatory purpose of: (identification of the vehicle, class, weight, use, county of origin, and ownership), and leave the personal expression to bumper stickers.
Happy Motoring! Marco.

There is a reason they are called VANITY plates. These people need to grow up and find a mature faith.

License plates serve as a means of identification for automobiles, not for expressing matters of faith. Get rid of all this nonsense and make plain old state issued plates.