- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

Neon-yellow “Choose Life” Virginia license plates will appear on roadways as early as this week, making Virginia the 24th state to allow motorists to feature the slogan on state-issued tags.

The state has begun shipping the plates, after Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, signed a bill in March authorizing their production. As of Friday, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles had received 538 applications for the plates, which became available July 1. Officials said 481 motorists submitted paid applications for the plates in advance of their availability.

That figure is well above the 350 applications required for the state to process a specialty license plate but about “comparable” to the number of applications received for other specialty plates, DMV officials said.

Those who lobbied for the “Choose Life” license plates said they expect the number of applications to increase.

“I’ve been sending out e-mails, and I think the number will jump by leaps and bounds shortly,” said Shawn Doran, outreach coordinator of the Richmond Coalition for Life, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the “Choose Life” license plate campaign.

After the first 1,000 plates are sold, $15 of every $25 raised from the purchase of “Choose Life” plates will fund Heartbeat International, a nonprofit Christian association of pregnancy resource centers, which will distribute the money to approximately 40 centers in Virginia that meet the group’s standards.

“I will definitely invest in one, not only because I like the idea of having that license plate, but also because the money goes toward pregnancy resource centers,” said Charleen Huguet, 30, who is affiliated with the Richmond Coalition for Life. “I think it will be encouraging as we drive around to see people of the pro-life cause.”

Lori and Glen Sturtevant, who helped collect the requisite number of prepaid motorists, continue to spread the word.

“I decided to get involved because I’m pro-life, and I like that fact that I can show the support for the cause just by riding around town,” said Mrs. Sturtevant, a librarian at St. Benedict Catholic School in Richmond.

The “Choose Life” plate is among the latest of more than 200 specialty plate options offered in Virginia.

Mr. Kaine, a Catholic who said he is personally opposed to abortion, signed the legislation after his predecessor, Gov. Mark Warner, also a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill in 2003.

The Democrat-controlled state Senate approved the license plates after state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Fairfax Republican, attached the proposal to an omnibus license plate bill. Mr. Cuccinelli said he is pleased at how many license plates have sold.

“I think once people start to see them, they’re visually going to reach a lot of folks,” he said. “People will just discover them on the road.”

Chris Freund, vice president of policy and communications at the Family Foundation of Virginia, which advocated for the bill, agreed.

“I don’t have any doubt that we’ll get to 1,000 based on people we’ve talked to around the state,” he said. “It’s going to be folks who are very motivated in the beginning, and as different folks’ registrations come due, they’ll make the switch to ‘Choose Life.’ ”

However, neither Mr. Cuccinelli nor Mr. Freund has registered for a plate.

Mr. Cuccinelli, a candidate for Virginia attorney general, said he is too attached to his “KC4AG” specialty plate to swap it for a “Choose Life” one. “My wife is more likely to get one,” he said.

Mr. Freund said he had not made up his mind. He noted that his wife wanted one but that she was waiting until her registration is due in March. He also said that pro-life license plates and bumper stickers tend to be less popular among “guys.”

But Mr. Doran, who runs the Virginia Choose Life license plate Web site, disagrees. He said about half of the e-mail inquiries he receives are from men.

Mr. Doran also has not registered for a plate. He said he drives a company car and his employer would not allow it.

When he signed the bill authorizing the plate, Mr. Kaine said that if an organization such as Planned Parenthood sought a specialty license plate, he thought he would be constitutionally compelled to honor the request. But no such group appears to have begun such an effort.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, in its annual review of the Virginia legislative session, said that state lawmakers “may have unwittingly grabbed a tiger by the tail” in passing the law authorizing the “Choose Life” license plate.

“Because most courts, including the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, have held that specialty license plates are public forums where viewpoint discrimination is not permitted, the General Assembly must now approve a specialty plate with a pro-choice message, if such a bill is introduced in an upcoming session. To fail to do so would almost certainly invite a lawsuit on free speech grounds,” said the report, which was released June 30.

In the report, the ACLU said the process for issuing license plates should be moved from the General Assembly to a state agency, such as the DMV, that will be required to issue specialty plates without regard to viewpoint.

“The ACLU of Virginia opposes the process by which members of the General Assembly are allowed to vote on the issuance of specialty license plates, recommending instead that the DMV administer the specialty license plate program following rules that prohibit viewpoint discrimination when deciding which specialty license plates will be approved,” the group said. “A legislature that has the power, by majority rule, to decide which political or controversial messages will be placed on license plates and which messages will not, violates the free speech rights of its citizens every time it votes to authorize a specialty license plate.”

Mr. Cuccinelli said it is more difficult for pro-choice groups to create license plates.

“I don’t know that there’s a great deal of passion for it,” he said. “What do you say? ‘Choose choice’? Ours is both encouraging, positive, upbeat, and the money is going to what in my view is an unarguably charitable cause.”

Mr. Cuccinelli said he would give conditional support to a pro-choice plate in Virginia.

“It would depend very heavily on both where the money was going and what they put on the plate,” he said. “If they’re going to send the money to a place that does abortions, then I think that’s going to be a problem.”

Adrienne Timler, who pre-purchased a plate, said she would not oppose efforts for a pro-choice plate.

Abortion “is legal, so I would not see the necessity for a pro-choice display,” said Mrs. Timler, who is associated with the Richmond Coalition for Life. “But it is free speech, so I would definitely encourage that.”

Groups only in Montana and Hawaii have registered for pro-choice plates.

Russ Amerling, publicity coordinator for Choose Life Inc., an organization that promotes the sale of pro-life license plates, said the plates greatly outsell their pro-choice competitors in those states.

“It’s a big embarrassment to them,” he said. “If you’ll pardon the pun, we have found a vehicle for raising funds that they can’t emulate.”

Lawsuits filed by pro-life advocates are pending in New York and New Jersey, and the pro-life law advocate Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit in October 2005 in the U.S. Supreme Court against Illinois, which has refused to grant pro-life license plates.

“[Virginia] is one of the first times, if not the first time, the legislature has approved the plate and a Democratic governor has signed it into law,” Mr. Amerling said.

“Unfortunately, Democrats have been opposed pretty much across the board. We’re hoping now with Tim Kaine being chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he’s going to be sending a signal out that they’re not going to be opposing it,” he said.

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