- Associated Press - Thursday, March 2, 2017

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) - The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles has denied a Goshen man’s request to have a personalized plate that read “atheist.”

The state agency denied Chris Bontrager’s request in a letter without citing specific reasoning, The Elkhart Truth reported (https://bit.ly/2me4nu2 ). The letter states that the agency can deny a personalized plate if it has a connotation offensive to good taste or decency, would be misleading or if the agency considers it improper.

“The BMV’s online tool said that it fit the criteria to be on a plate and I paid for it,” Bontrager said. “So I was a little surprised when I got the denial letter.”

Bontrager said he believes the denial was religiously motivated.

The state’s ability to deny any application was reinforced in a 2013 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of a motorist who wanted to purchase a plate that read “oink.” The state temporarily suspended the program because of the lawsuit before starting it up again in March 2016.

The U.S. and Indiana Supreme Courts have both supported the state’s ability to decide whether a message on a personalized plate will be approved or denied because it’s considered “government speech.”

Bontrager can appeal the bureau’s decision, but he said the broad discretion the agency used in this matter makes it difficult to win.

Bontrager said that he has spoken with ACLU lawyers about potentially suing the state to have his license plate approved. He said the ACLU told him he might have a case based on Indiana’s establishment clause, which provides that if the government allows one religious statement, it must allow all religions to have the same benefit.

“There are a lot of people out on the road with personalized plates that have other religious messages on them,” he said.

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Information from: The Elkhart Truth, https://www.elkharttruth.com


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