Sunday, March 6, 2016

Religion & License Plates

Note: read the article about this topic here.]
Shannon Morgan in Leesberg, NJ is suing the state for violating her First Amendment rights. She attempted to register a license plate with the word “8THIEST” and was denied on the basis that the “requested plate text is considered objectionable. She then typed “BAPTIST” into the prompt on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website to test the system, and the word was approved.
            Morgan requested the reasoning of the Motor Vehicle Commission’s denial of the word and was never given a clear answer. In addition, since the beginning of the lawsuit, the commission has apparently “stonewalled” Morgan. The lawsuit states that the Vehicle Commission also denied president of American Atheists, David Silverman, after requesting the word “ATH1EST.” The word was eventually approved, but only after having received attention and support by local news and media outlets. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. based religious liberty watchdog group, is supporting Morgan. The group’s legal director called the Motor Vehicle Commission’s denial mean-spirited, derogatory, and unconstitutional. They claim that the Commission should not have the power to approve or deny license plates on the grounds of religion and non-religion because that is “a classic speech violation.” A spokesperson for the Commission stated, “We review every request personally…and we review them for anything that’s offensive or objectionable.” Apparently the Commission has approved atheist-themed license plates before, and stated, “We have no objection and continue to issue license plates with these types of configurations.”
            This is an important case because it entails the element of neutrality and sheds light on the necessity of fair and equal judgment when it comes to religious and non-religious matters. The salient issue in this case is whether or not Morgan’s right to free speech is being violated by rejecting a word of her choice from being stamped onto a license plate that would be put onto a vehicle in her possession. The word “atheist” should not be considered “objectionable” because it is not obscene or offensive, but a name of a population, one that a large amount of people in this country together make up. By denying this word to be made into a license plate creates the possibility of being directly offensive to a large number of people as well as overtly inhibiting and individual from expressing her views and opinions.
            The other issue of consistency is unveiled in this case. The Commission clearly has not treated all license plate word acceptances and denials the same way. We can see this most obviously with David Silverman’s case, first being denied and then approved only because it received attention. The Commission has to show a more significant amount of consistency with approval and denials. In these religious cases, however, consistency comes second to justice, as a word referring to religious (or non-, in this case) beliefs should not be denied on the grounds that it is objectionable. This is a direct violation of the free speech clause of the first amendment. It is important here to also address the additional issue of whether or not it is unconstitutional to consider the word “atheist” offensive. In a way, this classification of “atheist” is a form of hate speech and unacceptance toward an entire population with a particular belief. The allowance of the word “Baptist” also begs the question of whether or not words descriptive of other religions, like “Islam” or “Hindu” would be approved to be on license plates. The consistency issue is applicable here as well, as free speech is violated in that circumstance by allowing one religion but not all to be deemed acceptable to be put onto a license plate.
            There is absolutely no compelling state interest in New Jersey denying the word “atheist.” The entirety of the comments on ABC News’ article discussed how New Jersey will not and should not win this lawsuit. Even people identifying as Christian agree that this is an obvious form of inhibiting free speech.

            Why do you think this issue is important? What is there to say about personal property and the freedom of personal expression? What do you think about the way the Commission has dealt with this issue thus far?

9 comments:

Rebecca J said...

I agree that variations of the words atheist should not be restricted on license plates by the Department of Motor Vehicle. The key factor is that the decision to request a certain license plate is an individual decision. While the Department of Motor Vehicle is a government agency through which license plate requests may pass, they are not in any way endorsing the messages of the license plates. Individuals have the right to free speech and in this case specifically, the government agency must be neutral between religion and non-religion. To allow the word "baptist" but not to allow the word "atheist" is clearly not being neutral between religion and non-religion. In this case, I am surprised that there is not more of a controversy around having specifically religious words on license plates since they are government issued. That being said, I do not believe there would be any real threat of establishing a religion since what a license plate says is an individual's decision. The DMV needs to allow religious and non-religious belief references alike if they are to remain neutral as the government is expected to do under the First Amendment.

Natalie Kawalec said...


I think that because the Department of Motor Vehicle is a state level government agency that is in charge of managing driver licensing and vehicle registration, it should also be allowed to fully administer the approval and denial of certain words on license plates based on a set of criteria. Although I do not particularly agree with New Jersey Mother Vehicle Commission’s claim that the word “8THIEST” is “objectionable” and should therefore be denied, I believe that the word should be denied simply because a slippery slope is invoked when one religion or political ideology is approved and another one is not approved. In order to remain religiously neutral, the Department of Mother Vehicle should also deny “BAPTIST” as well as other religious words such as “ISLAM” and “SATAN.” If all religions and political ideologies are treated equally and any word is permitted on a license plate, what if someone requests “ISIS1” or “NAZI88?” The government cannot decide which religious or political words are acceptable because that causes excessive entanglement. Therefore, they should all be denied.

Jim R said...

I agree with Sedona and Rebecca.

When a person drives an automobile, if they have a customized license plate or a bumper sticker, it publicly conveys information about the person or people who own the car. While governments are not allowed under the 1st and 14th Amendments to inhibit or promote religions, individuals have a greater freedom to express their personal views. License plates tend to serve a secular purpose: to identify drivers for insurance claims in case of an accident or be able for drivers to identify identical cars that are parked within a parking lot at a grocery store, church, or other establishment.

The highway is considered an open public forum with very few limitations for who is able to display their messages when they drive on it. It could also be argued that the highway could serve as a marketplace of opinions for drivers as they pass other vehicles on their road trips to their destinations. Drivers are unlikely to stop their vehicle's progress to report the offensiveness of another license plate. As long as a license plate doesn't express obscene or offensive gestures (ISIS1), then the Department of Motor Vehicles has no authority to block this submission.

Another key factor for me is that the private individuals are able to divert their message from the government entity similar to the reason why Rosenberg was able to promote its magazine. The government agency is not directly endorsing or denying a statement that an individual makes when they have their license plate read by another car.

Maddie G said...

I agree with Becca and Sedona here. The state should not be allowed to deny certain religious license plates because they find them "objectionable". License plates are an individual choice, so if someone opts to add a religious message to theirs, that is their decision, not the state establishing a religion. To deny certain plates would be to deny citizens' right to free speech. Furthermore, by denying some religious plates and not others, the state is preferencing one religion over another, a clear violation of the first amendment.

Kiriko Masek said...

I agree that the DMV does not have the right to deny the printing of a religious group on a license plate. A license plate is an individual's property that is mounted onto a car, also belonging to an individual, not the state. Atheists are a religious group with their own set of religious beliefs. Just because there is a negative stigma attached to atheists does not mean that they should be discriminated against as a religious following. By allowing "baptist" to be printed on a license plate, the DMV should therefore allow all religiously affiliated words to be printed on license plates. I think this is a case where either all religious groups should be allowed to be printed onto the plates, or none at all.

Sara G. said...

I agree that the word "atheist " should not be censored from license plates and that doing so is unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional for the DMV to decide which religiously affiliated words are and are not allowed on license plates. The word "atheist" is definitely not "objectionable," it's just as valid of a belief system as Christianity, and denying it as a license plate is unconstitutional religious discrimination. It is not associated with a hate or terrorist group, and just because it has negative stereotypes does not mean it should be censored, since all religious groups have their own negative stereotypes. The word is not meant as hurtful, hateful or threatening speech, and is not vulgar (such as a curse word), so it should be allowed. I don't think it opens a slippery slope to allow "atheist" as long as a reasonable line is drawn at threatening and vulgar words. I feel that banning the word actually creates the slippery slope. If the word "atheist" is banned, all religiously oriented words have to be banned, and there is absolutely no way to do this other than removing the customizability from license plates entirely. I say it would be impossible because the list of words that could be associated with religion is nearly endless.

Lauren Caldas said...

I agree as well that "atheist" should not be censored from being on a license plate. This is a clear violation of free speech and prevents Morgan from freely expressing personal beliefs. I think that this is also a major issue of neutrality. The fact that "baptist" was approved while "atheist" was not is clearly discrimination against a particular religious group. Atheists do constitute as a religious group, their views are not against religion, but against certain aspects of other religions. The DMV is favoring more well respected religious groups like baptists over less respected groups like atheists. They should either allow all religiously affiliated phrases, or none at all, to be on license plates in order to be neutral towards religion. However, prohibiting all phrases would be a violation of free speech so therefore there should be no discrimination against one religion over another and "atheist" should be immediately approved.

Lucy Fishell said...

I agree with the above comments, by not allowing people to make their license plates say 'atheist' while allowing other religious jargon is censorship and infringes on their First Amendment rights. Further by allowing words like 'Baptist' to be on license plates is a huge issue neutrality issue. If the DMV truly wanted to go by their own word and treat license plates with a separationist point of view, like they had stated they would have never allowed the word "Baptist" to be put on a license plate to begin with.

Samantha Woolford said...

I agree with the comments above me. What people put on their license tags is their own decision. It is a violation of the Free Exercise Clause by not allowing the atheist tag. Additionally, it could be a violation of the Establishment Clause because the DMV would be allowing one religion, which could further it. I think they either need to let any religious connotations be allowed, or none at all.