- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

BALTIMORE — Five years ago, the Motor Vehicle Administration refused to grant special license plates to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The organization took the state to court and won.

So when a pro-life group applied for plates of its own, state officials treated the application as a routine matter and approved the organization’s request.

The group is Choose Life of Maryland Inc. It is about 3 years old and has a little more than three dozen members. The license plate that went into production this summer features a simple drawing of a boy and a girl and the motto, “Choose Life,” in small letters across the bottom.

“There is no standard on which we would have rejected this plate,” said Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for the MVA.

But now that the tags have begun to hit the streets, at least one group believes the state could be on a slippery slope.

“Our concern is simple — where do you draw the line?” said Dan Clements, a Baltimore lawyer and chairman of the board of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. “They have ‘Choose Life.’ We have ‘Every Woman’s Right to Choose.’ Where does it end?”

Mr. Clements said the state should not be in the position of endorsing political or religious speech.

Robert C. Baldwin, 68, a former Republican state legislator from Anne Arundel County, led the effort to obtain the “Choose Life” plates. He argues that they bear a universal message that could appeal to opponents of the death penalty and even those who are concerned about the elderly.

He said he would not be perturbed by a challenge from Planned Parenthood.

“Their fight is with the state, not with us,” he said. “The state told us what is required and we fulfilled it.”

Miss Wicker said the state is “issue-neutral.”

“By law, we can’t not approve it so long as it meets the established criteria. Political content is not one of the standards we apply,” she said.

State regulations generally require organizations to have at least 25 members and to be certified by the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit group. The state reserves the right to reject mottos or logos that are derogatory to racial, religious and ethnic groups, scatological or use profanity, or advocate acts that are against the law.

About 620 groups have such plates, usually as a fund-raising or affinity tool.

Mr. Clements said the regulation needs to be clarified with regard to political messages.

The “Choose Life” license plate has generated similar debate across the country since it was created by a Florida county commissioner in 1996.

Russ Amerling, national publicity coordinator for Choose Life License Plates in Ocala, Fla., says the goal of the campaign is to raise money to help pregnant women choose adoption over abortion. The plates have generated about $2 million in Florida.

Similar groups in Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi and Oklahoma have persuaded their states to issue some version of the “Choose Life” plates.

Louisiana produced the tags, but a federal judge last month ordered the state to stop production after a challenge by abortion-rights activists. In Virginia, the General Assembly approved the plate this year but Gov. Mark Warner vetoed the bill.

Mr. Baldwin said his expectations are modest: The tags sell for $40, of which the organization gets $15 and the MVA gets the rest. About 40 sets of tags have been issued so far.

“We won’t get a lot of income that way,” he said. “We’re hoping for maybe $1,000 to $1,500 a year, which we could set aside to help pregnant women.”

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