State governments shouldn’t be rejecting perfectly inoffensive license plates. And thanks to one atheist’s lawsuit, we’re a step closer to making sure that doesn’t happen in Kentucky.
This case began in 2016, when the head of Kentucky’s Division of Motor Vehicles rejected Ben Hart‘s request to get a license plate reading “IM GOD,” even though he had it (without incident) in Ohio, where he had lived for the previous twelve years. That’s when he filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU of Kentucky and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials initially refused ACLU-KY/FFRF client Ben Hart’s request early this year claiming that the license plate message was, “obscene or vulgar,” but then later saying it was because the plate was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, namely those that allow government officials to deny plates based on vague notions of “good taste” as well as those barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages.
“I simply want the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” says Hart. “There is nothing ‘obscene or vulgar’ about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”
As he suggested, there’s a difference between using a curse word to describe God and saying you simply don’t believe one exists (or that you are Him). By saying “I am God” was obscene, or in poor taste, the government was effectively taking a position on religion.
That’s the argument Hart’s attorneys made in the lawsuit:
“Under the First Amendment, government officials do not have the authority to censor messages simply because they dislike them,” says ACLU-KY Legal Director William Sharp. “And in this instance, personalized license plates are a form of individual speech equally deserving of First Amendment protection.”
“Hart has a right to select a personalized plate message that reflects his philosophical views, just as any other driver may select an individual message for their personalized plate,” says FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “Just as others may select religious messages, Ben Hart, an atheist, has a right to comment on religion.”
Considering that Kentucky already had a option for citizens to buy a license plate template with the phrase “In God We Trust,” it seemed absurd that a contrary position on the plate itself would be deemed offensive by the government. If they’re allowing one viewpoint on God, they’ve opened the door to all the other ones, too.
It’s taken a while for this case to work through the legal system, but there was finally some good news on Good Friday. A judge said this case would have to be decided on its merits, rejecting the state’s argument that the lawsuit didn’t deserve a fair hearing.
… U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Friday, March 31, rejected the state’s argument that the Kentucky transportation secretary is immune from a lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed because personalized plate messages are “government speech.”
“We are looking forward to having this case resolved on the merits,” says FFRF Senior Legal Counsel Patrick Elliott.
“Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based for reasons we believe violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” says ACLU-KY Attorney Heather Gatnarek. “We’ll be making that argument to the court as the case moves forward.”
It’ll be a little while before this case is official decided, but this may have been the biggest hurdle.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)