Vermont: License plate no place for religion


The state says it has no problem if a Rutland man wants to drive around with a biblical message on the bumper of his car, he just can’t have it on his vanity license plate.

“(Shawn Byrne) has an alternative means of communicating the very message he sought to communicate with the license plate he requested,” state Assistant Attorney General Harvey Golubock wrote in a recently filed response to a federal lawsuit by Byrne of Rutland in his battle to a get vanity license plate, “JOHN316, which refers to a passage in the Bible.

(Byrne) has the option of putting a bumper sticker on his car inches away from the license plate with precisely the same message he wanted to put on his license,” Golubock wrote. “Such a sticker would provide the same visual message without the official imprimatur of a license plate.”

Byrne filed his lawsuit in January in U.S. District Court in Rutland after his bid for a license plate with “JOHN316” was turned down by the state, contending it conveyed a religious message.

Earlier this month, attorneys for Byrne filed a request asking federal Magistrate Judge Jerome J. Niedermeier to grant a preliminary injunction against the state, allowing him to get his requested vanity plate. He called the denial of his vanity license plate request a violation of his free speech.

In its response filed last week, the state asked that the motion for a preliminary injunction be denied and requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.

“Because license plates are government property and because they serve an official function, there is a very real likelihood that a religious message of a license plate will be viewed as a government endorsement of religion,” Golubock wrote. “Simililary, there is a strong likelihood that anti-religious messages on plates will be viewed as evidence of state sanction for hostility to or mockery of religion.”

Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization that states it defends religious liberty and has taken up Byrne’s case, said Thursday there was little he could say about the state’s filing since the case is ongoing.

“The bottom line is, we think we’ve got the right arguments to win the case,” Tedesco said. “We think that the ones that they filed and wrote about are the ones we expected and we think they’re losing arguments.”

According to the lawsuit, Byrne applied to the state DMV for a vanity plate for his Ford pickup.

The application asked for Byrne to list three choices for his vanity plate. Byrne listed, “JOHN316,” “JN316” and “JN36TN.”

The application also asked Byrne what each selection represented, and in each case he wrote, “Bible passage.”

John 3:16” refers to a Scripture passage: “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.”

Byrne received notice from the state DMV a month later stating that all three requests had been turned down.

“It has been deemed to be a combination that refers to deity and has been denied based on that reason,” the letter read.

An administrative judge later denied his appeal, the lawsuit stated.

The lawsuit against the DMV comes on the heels of another legal battle over a license plate waged by a Wallingford woman two years ago when she wanted her vanity plate to read “Irish.”

The woman’s request was initially rejected because the department considered the word ethnically offensive.

She eventually took her case all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, where she prevailed.

Another case involving a vanity license plate took place in 2001, known as Paula Perry v. Patricia McDonald, who at the time was DMV commissioner.

In that case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ruled that Vermont could deny the vanity license plate “SHTHPNS” because the letter combination contained an “easily recognizable” profanity.

State regulations say letters or numbers that refer to any race, religion, color, deity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation are not allowed on vanity plates.

That rule, according to the state’s recent filing, “is viewpoint neutral” when it comes to religion by prohibiting both pro- and anti-religious sentiment.

“Its restrictions apply to license plates like the one (Byrne) sought that endorse well-know biblical verses and to plates that endorse views seen as iconoclastic, heretical or defamatory of any religion,” according to the state’s filing.

“(The regulations) thus allows the state avoid the perceived endorsement of or association with any views on certain matters that are better discussed and debated in nongovernment (forums), such as bumper stickers.”

There are about 35,000 vanity plates issued in Vermont. Payment of an annual fee of $30, in addition to the annual fee for registration, is required for vanity plates.

The state’s response to Byrne’s lawsuit stated that vanity plates with three numerals cannot be issued, to avoid confusion with standard-issued plates. Two of the three requests by Byrne, the response stated, contained three numerals and fail to comply with that provision.

The request for vanity plate, “JN36TH,” is only one that did not.

“(Byrne) is free to spell out the entire verse on a bumper sticker,” Golubuck wrote. “Safety requirement aside, the only place on (Byrne’s) car where he may not put his religious message is on the only state property on the car — its license plates.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Times Argus, USA
Apr. 25, 2005
Alan J. Keays
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 25, 2005.
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