- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Calling it a case for religious and political freedom, a New Jersey woman is suing the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission after her order for an “8THEIST” custom license plate was denied.

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of Leesburg resident Shannon Morgan, Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged the Motor Vehicle Commission with infringing on Ms. Morgan’s First Amendment rights to express her religious belief — or non-beliefs — on her license plate.

“This is both a speech, religion and equal-protection case,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan. “Atheists are just as entitled to express their point of view as Christians are.”

Court records indicate that Ms. Morgan in November attempted to order a vanity plate through the vehicle commission’s website. But when she typed in her request, “8-T-H-E-I-S-T”, the site blocked her from completing the process and sent her a message indicating the “requested plate text is considered objectionable.”

Ms. Morgan then typed in the suggestion “BAPTIST,”and the plate was approved, court papers state, leading Ms. Morgan to believe the commission “expresses a preference for theistic religious beliefs over nontheistic beliefs.”

Ms. Morgan wrote to the commission and was told to contact the Special Plate Unit. Despite several correspondences requesting a review of her plate order, she claimed she was unable to obtain an answer to her questions.

Motor Vehicle Commission spokeswoman Sandy Grossman said vanity plates similar to the kind requested by Ms. Morgan have in the past been approved and ordered, and will continue to be.

The commission’s website states that custom plates must have at least three letters and no more than seven characters combined from letters and numbers.

But the site also states that “no personalized plate combination which is considered offensive will be approved for issuance.”

In August, American Atheists President David Silverman, a resident of New Jersey, requested the vanity plate “ATHE1ST.”

The plate was originally denied, but the commission ruled that a clerk had overstepped her authority in determining what was appropriate for a license plate.

“We’ve been issuing these types of configurations,” Ms. Grossman said. “There’s no reason not to continue.”

The question of personalized and vanity license plates has proven a murky legal area for First Amendment scholars, with each state adopting its own standards and rules for determining which requests are acceptable. Among those that have failed to pass muster in at least one state include “FROG,” “IRISH,” “VINO,” “GODCAN,” “HATEGM” and “GVT SUX.”

Americans United’s Ms. Khan said the goal of the lawsuit is not only to get Ms. Morgan her plate, but to have the Motor Vehicle Commission establish a “set of viewpoint-neutral regulations that guide the discretion on issuing plates.”

“That would ensure that atheists don’t have to go through this rigmarole to get their plates accepted.”

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