- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

By themselves, the license plates are innocent-looking crayon drawings of two smiling children against a bright-yellow background. Scrawled at the bottom are the words "Choose Life."

In reality, says the National Organization for Women, the plates are a "state-sanctioned political statement against abortion rights." The organization has fought hard over the past year to keep Floridians from using them as vanity plates.

To date, NOW has mounted three lawsuits to keep Florida from being the first state in the country to sport the two-word slogan above its car bumpers. Although two of the lawsuits have been dismissed or defeated, NOW's strategy has been to indefinitely tie up the matter in court.

NOW's national headquarters in Washington refused repeated requests for comment.

" 'Choose Life' is a positive message that needs to be out there," Matt Ozolnieks of Florida Right to Life told the St. Petersburg Times.

Some state officials have disagreed with NOW's concerns.

"No one is forced to carry the 'Choose Life' license plate on his car," wrote U.S. District Judge Ralph Nimmons in a ruling released Dec. 23, after he dismissed one of NOW's three lawsuits.

"Florida motorists have many other specialty and regular plates. Therefore, this plate does not force anyone to promote a view with which he does not agree," he said.

NOW's latest lawsuit, filed Dec. 6, joins a Florida synagogue and two individual plaintiffs in suing the state of Florida and the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Palm Beach County court.

Barry Silver, a Boca Raton attorney for NOW, said his clients are suing on grounds that the "Choose Life" plates are a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, meaning the state is favoring one group or religion over another.

In a companion suit, two individuals are suing the DMV in District Court on the grounds the plates are unconstitutional.

"Choose Life" is a phrase dating back 3,500 years to a speech Moses gave to the Israelites shortly before they invaded Canaan. Recorded in Deuteronomy 30:19, it has become a slogan for the pro-life movement.

Ricky Polston, attorney for the state of Florida and the DMV, says no one is being forced to display the plate.

"We are defending on the basis that the plates are constitutional," he said. "There are many other plates, and this is just supporting one particular view."

The "Choose Life" plate effort began Feb. 4, 1997, when the Ocala-based group Choose Life Inc. began applying to manufacture the plates. State law says any new license plate must be supported by $30,000 in fees and 10,000 signatures. It took Choose Life Inc. only 3 and 1/2 weeks to obtain 14,500 signatures and to raise the money.

Although the measure passed in both houses of the Legislature in early 1998, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, vetoed it, saying it was a message he did not want seen on the state's highways.

"This phrase is closely associated with the issue of reproductive rights, a controversial and difficult subject for many Floridians," he said May 20, 1998, after vetoing the bill.

Jeb Bush was elected governor in November 1998, prompting Choose Life Inc. to try again. The Florida Cabinet once again approved the tags on June 10, 1999, and in late November, Mr. Bush accepted the plate design and signed the addition of the "Choose Life" plate into law.

"It's a pretty tag, and it says 'Choose Life,' and it's for adoption," Mr. Bush told the Orlando Sentinel. "If people want to politicize that, they'll politicize anything."

While awaiting a decision in both the state and district courts, Circuit Judge Lucy Brown said the state DMV could manufacture the plates as long as they did not distribute them before a final ruling has been determined.

"If the plates were distributed, it would be very difficult to confiscate them if a judge later rules them illegal," Mr. Silver said. "The harm would be irreparable and it would waste taxpayers' money."

Russ Amerling, secretary-treasurer for Choose Life Inc., called the response for the plates "overwhelming," adding, "People are definitely interested in conveying this message."

He said he has received inquiries from numerous individuals and groups from 34 states.

The "Choose Life" specialty plates sell for about $22, $2 of which is an imposed state tax. The full $20 cost of the tag will go back to the county where the plate was sold and each county commission will then delegate which organizations get the proceeds.

Typically, 70 percent of the money goes toward diapers, formula, medicine, clothing and health costs for expectant mothers. The remaining 30 percent goes to train counselors for women who plan to give their children up for adoption and to defray the cost of advertising for the plates.

Florida has 51 specialty plates bearing many different messages, including anti-drug use, protecting the dolphins, endorsing the Florida Marlins baseball team and commemorating the Everglades. In contrast, Virginia has 140 specialty tags, although not one with the words "Choose Life."

A Virginia version of the Choose Life plate was introduced last year and sponsored by Delegate Richard H. Black, Sterling Republican. The plate became wrapped up in an all-or-nothing legislative package in an attempt to control the number of specialty license plates. Approval of the plate never made it through both houses of the General Assembly, so it will be reintroduced in 2001.

"Is the state allowing for free expression or propagating a particular view?" asked Steve Whitener, legislative assistant to Mr. Black.

"Some of the people in the Senate were nervous because other House members were making the argument that if there is a pro-life tag then there could be a pro-abortion tag," he said.

There has been talk in the Virginia General Assembly and the Department of Motor Vehicles to put a stop to specialty plates in Virginia altogether. However, they are a good way to generate money. According to the DMV, the state made $3.7 million from the sale of vanity plates last year.

Delegate Jay DeBoer, Petersburg Democrat, favors keeping the plates, saying, "Once government provides a forum or medium for expression, it may not limit it… . It's a First Amendment issue."

While the plates are not an issue that will come before lawmakers this year in Virginia, supporters and opponents alike are awaiting the decision in Florida.

"The plates are not 'anti-' anything," Florida state Rep. Bev Kilmer, who sponsored the Florida House bill, told the Orlando Sentinel. "It's been a long time coming. It's been wanted by the people for a long time.

"I think it will withstand a court challenge. The word 'choose' means that you've got a choice," the Quincy Republican said.

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