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.” This time, it was rejected on grounds of being “objectionable.”
Morgan wanted to know what would happen if she requested “BAPTIST” instead and, wouldn’t you know it, 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 wasn’t just an amusing quirk. It was discrimination.
So in April of 2015, 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 government officials 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The commission has not “amended or repealed its regulation that grants Commission officials the discretion to prohibit ‘offensive license plate expressions,” Morgan’s lawyers wrote.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 could have her plate, the rule still said MVC officials must research all vanity plates before approving them. So this wasn’t just a computer glitch. Someone felt “atheist” was a dirty, offensive, objectionable word — and that was the crux of the problem Morgan was trying to solve.
It wasn’t enough to get her vanity plate. She wanted to make sure other atheists could get their vanity plates.
U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson said a month later 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.”
I’m happy to announce that the case is now officially settled. Here are some of the terms of the agreement:
- Morgan will be able to get her “8THEIST” vanity plate.
- The following vanity plates were also given green lights in case anyone wants them in the future: SECULAR, 8THE1ST (with a 1), RATIONL, HUMANST, ATHEISM, GODLESS, HEATHEN, HERETIC, SKEPTIC, BLASFMR, REASON, EVOLVE, TRANS, LGBTRTS, LGBTQ, PRIDE, QUEER, GAYPOWR, LGBTALY, FEMINISM, FEMINST, EQUALITY, 4WOMEN.
- The Motor Vehicle Commission will have to pay $75,000 in legal fees to the other side
- No one has to admit any wrongdoing.
That last part is standard in these kinds of settlements, and (as I said yesterday) it’s mostly symbolic since the MVC’s pocketbooks are still $75,000 lighter.
Americans United is thrilled with the result:
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said he is pleased that the case has been successfully resolved.
“All Shannon Morgan ever wanted was for the state of New Jersey to stop disparaging her non-belief and cease treating her like a second-class citizen,” said Lynn. “The lesson of this case is simple: The government should treat believers and non-believers equally.”
Keep this in mind: All of this could have been avoided if the folks at the MVC just had a bit of common sense, an understanding of church/state separation, and someone willing to talk to Morgan when she initially reached out to them.
It’s a $75,000 lesson they won’t forget anytime soon.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)