Wednesday, September 14, 2011

There They Go Again: Specialty License Plates

by Gary Berg-Cross

There’s a license-plate and First Amendment violation dispute underway in North Carolina. In the past states required drunk driving offenders to use special “whiskey plates” to visually signal their offense. This NC dispute has more of a right to life/religio-ethics slant. It follows on the 2nd Circuit ruling in favor of a Vermont resident who wanted to put a Biblical reference on a license plate. In the Tar Heel State the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of 4 "pro-choice automobile owners" to void a new law, easily passed both Republican-controlled state legislative chambers, establishing a "Choose Life" license plate. The NC General Assembly approved the "Choose Life" plate this year, along with 79 other specialty plates. The Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an association of nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers, will get $15 from each plate sold.

Note in Virginia, you can buy "Trust Women/Respect Choice" license plates but the funds are denied to pro-choice, women-trusting groups. You don't even have the plate option in NC.

The ACLU contends that the license plate constitutes state-sponsored discrimination in part because the North Carolina legislators have denied requests for plates that would carry such messages (not one of the 79 plates) as “Respect Choice.” Katherine Lewis Parker, the state's ACLU legal director notes:

"The state is opening up a forum to one side of the argument. When they do that, they are constitutionally obligated to open to the other side."

In this case the other side would be the state offering a tag for abortion rights supporters, such as a "Respect Choice" or 'Trust Women'. So says Sue Holliday, a certified nurse midwife who is one of the plaintiffs in the case. Holliday put her case this way, in a statement posted by the ACLU:

“If anti-choice drivers are permitted to express their views on their license plates, people like me should be able to express our view that women deserve full reproductive freedom,”

If history is a guide there is a good chance that the decision will be reversed. The AP noted in covering this story that in:

“2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina judge's ruling that the "Choose Life" plates approved by lawmakers in that state were unconstitutional because they provided one group a forum to express its beliefs without giving the opposing view a similar forum. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and the state was forced to pay Planned Parenthood's $157,810 legal bill.”

Some of the new tide of conservative legislators thinks otherwise. NC Republican state legislator Mitch Gillespie, who sponsored the bill establishing the “Choose Life” plate, told the local NC News & Observer paper that the suit was an attempt by “an evil liberal organization to try to appease its liberal base.” That’s the ACLU in right-wing speak. Gillespie added that he didn’t think the suit will succeed since he knew that conservative legal groups were lining up to help defend the law. Just another data point on the uncompromising political-religious times we live in.

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