New Jersey does not have a good track record when it comes to handling vanity license plates requests from atheists.
In August of 2013, American Atheists’ President David Silverman requested a plate reading “ATHE1ST” (with a 1) only to have it rejected for being “offensive.” He appealed that decision and the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission quickly reversed course. (Or, as they called it, fixed a “clerical error.”)
In November of that year, New Jersey resident Shannon Morgan, unaware of what Silverman had been through, attempted to get her own vanity plate reading “8theist.” Again, it was rejected on grounds of being “objectionable.”
Morgan wanted to know what would happen if she requested “BAPTIST” instead… and that one went through without a problem.
She tried contacting the MVC to understand their decision and possibly appeal it, but the MVC just wouldn’t respond to her. They promised to call her… and didn’t. She wrote them a letter. They definitely received it… but didn’t respond to that, either.
For Morgan (and to a lot of us), this isn’t just an amusing quirk. It’s discrimination.
So in April, backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, she filed a federal lawsuit against Raymond Martinez, the chair of the New Jersey MVC:
“The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It simply has no right to do that.”
Added Lynn, “This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem — atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens.”
“The Commission thus has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheist, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for religion over atheism,” AU says in its lawsuit.
That must have spooked the government because they quickly moved to approve Morgan’s request for a plate — it was just a “computer error,” they said — hoping she’d rescind her lawsuit. But she didn’t:
… Morgan argued that if she or her daughter were to apply for personalized license plates in the future they will be subject to the same rules. And, her lawyers noted, David Silverman, the president of American atheists and a New Jersey resident, was also rejected when he applied for a plate that would read “ATHE1ST.”
The commission has not “amended or repealed its regulation that grants Commission officials the discretion to prohibit ‘offensive license plate expressions,” Morgan’s lawyers wrote.
Her lawyers say the commission’s rule is unconstitutional because it gives government officials “unbridled discretion to prohibit speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint,” the ruling notes.
In short, while Morgan may have her plate now, the rule still says MVC officials must research all vanity plates before approving them. So this isn’t just a computer glitch. Someone thinks “atheist” is a dirty, offensive, objectionable word — and that’s the crux of the problem Morgan’s trying to solve.
Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson said that Morgan had a point and could proceed with her lawsuit:
“We’re thrilled with the decision,” said Jon Green, Morgan’s attorney. “We’re saying its censorship of viewpoint and Judge Wolfson basically said you can’t do that.”
It’s not a victory yet, but it’s a green light for her to move forward with her case. If she wins, it’ll guarantee that government officials in her state won’t get to make value judgments on what people believe about God.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)