A Kentucky atheist is well on his way to obtaining a personalized license plate that officials initially rejected.
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.
Last year, a judge rejected the state’s argument that the lawsuit didn’t deserve a fair hearing, saying it would have to be decided on its merits.
… U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Friday, March 31, [2018,] 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.”
Today, the case was all but settled. The same judge said that Kentucky officials “went too far” in rejecting Hart’s plate request and that “personalized license plates aren’t just for UK fans.” While an official judgment is forthcoming, it’s clear that Hart will get his license plate.
FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky are celebrating the victory:
“As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart’s choice of a license plate was pure discrimination,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers.”
The ACLU of Kentucky also welcomes the judgment.
“Today’s ruling makes clear that Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based on reasons that violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In light of the court’s ruling, we expect the Transportation Cabinet’s license plate review process will respect the First Amendment moving forward,” says ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director Corey Shapiro.
“I’m thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” says Hart. “There is nothing inappropriate about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”
There’s no longer a legal way for Kentucky to deny Hart the plate he wants. All that’s left is for them to give it to him.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)