After telling an atheist he wasn’t allowed to have an “IM GOD” license plate, the state of Kentucky will have to pay him more than $150,000 in attorneys’ fees and litigation costs.
This case began in 2016, when the head of Kentucky’s Division of Motor Vehicles rejected Bennie Hart‘s request to get the personalized license plate 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 November, 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.” All that was left was deciding how much money the state owed Hart for his troubles.
The answer: a hell of a lot.
Plaintiff’s counsel provided the Court with ample documentation surrounding the work performed and appropriateness of the rates requested. In light of the complex constitutional issues involved and the resultant work-product, the Court cannot agree with Defendants that the hourly rate or time spent by Plaintiff’s counsel in this matter was excessive.
The amounts boil down to $150,715.50 in attorneys’ fees and $491.24 for litigation costs.
FFRF is celebrating the victory:
“Groups such as ours have to put in a lot of work to ensure the constitutional rights of ordinary folks,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We truly appreciate that the court recognizes this.”
Hart received his license plate a few weeks ago. He could’ve had it much earlier if the state of Kentucky was run (at the time) by people who weren’t Christian nationalists.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)