A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday in the long-running legal battle involving a West Rutland man who sued the state for the right to put a religious message on his license plate.
Lawyers for the state Department of Motor Vehicles and attorneys for Shawn Byrne both presented their cases at a morning hearing in U.S. District Court in Burlington. Both sides are seeking summary judgment.
If the state were granted its request for summary judgment, Byrne would not get the requested vanity plate and the case would be over, pending an appeal. Should Byrne be granted his request, he would be allowed to receive his vanity license plate request, “JN36TN.”
Byrne says the plate is a shorthand reference to the biblical passage in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Federal Magistrate Judge Jerome Niedermeier took the matter under advisement. He did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.
Jeremy Tedesco, of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that defends religious liberty and represents Byrne, released a statement Wednesday.
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“Government officials cannot discriminate against a citizen with a Christian viewpoint while allowing others to express their viewpoints,” Tedesco said in the statement. “Specifically, DMV officials can’t single out a Christian message for exclusion from a personalized license plate program while at the same time allowing other religious messages and non-religious messages. That’s unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”
Byrne went to court two years ago, alleging the DMV’s rejection of his vanity license plate request violated his First Amendment rights.
Vermont DMV officials say Byrne’s request for the “JN36TN” plate conflicts with agency rules forbidding motorists to express religious viewpoints on license plates.
The state contended, and Byrne’s lawyers conceded, that Byrne’s first two requests, “JOHN316” and “JN316,” would have violated a DMV rule against vanity plates with more than two numerals. The rule is intended to avoid confusion with standard-issue license plates.
However, the state also rejected Byrne’s third vanity license plate choice, “JN36TN,” arguing that it contained a religious reference. In his state application for each of the plates, Byrne has said his request represented a “Bible passage.”
Last year, Niedermeier turned down Byrne’s bid for an injunction that would have forced the DMV to grant his request. At the same time, the judge agreed to review whether the DMV is fairly implementing its vanity plate policy.
Since that time, both sides have asked the judge to issue a summary judgment in their favor, with the state contending the policy is being fairly implemented and Byrne’s attorneys arguing that Vermont already has issued other vanity plates with religious references, among them “PSALM46,” “PSALM64,” and “NOAHARK.”
An assistant state attorney general representing the state DMV has said some Vermont vanity plates containing religious references were issued prior to a change in the agency’s policy, or during a period between court rulings on the issue.