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Vermont man sues after state rejects religious license plate

By The Associated Press
01.20.05

RUTLAND, Vt. — A Rutland man is suing the state for denying his request for a religious license plate.

The Department of Motor Vehicles rejected Shawn Byrne's application for a vanity license plate, "JOHN316," which refers to a passage in the Bible.

Byrne filed suit in federal court yesterday.

"This is a violation of his free-expression rights," said Joshua Carden, an attorney for the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization that has taken up Byrne's case. "We'll be happy when Vermont's license plates are open to all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. That's what we're aiming for."

The lawsuit follows another legal battle over a license plate waged by a Wallingford woman two years ago when she wanted her vanity plate to read "Irish."

The woman's request was rejected because the department considered the word ethnically offensive. She eventually took her case to the Vermont Supreme Court, where she won.

Byrne's lawsuit alleges that the action by the DMV violated his First Amendment rights.

"The Constitution does not permit DMV officials to discriminate based upon the applicant's point of view," Carden said. "Religious speech is not inferior to secular speech. The department's actions are clearly unconstitutional."

Byrne applied to the state DMV for a vanity plate on April 20, for his Ford pickup, court records say.

Byrne was asked to list three choices for his vanity plate. Byrne wrote, "JOHN316," "JN316" and "JN36TN." The application also asked Byrne what each selection represented, and in each case he wrote, "Bible passage."

Carden said "John 3:16" refers to the New Testament passage, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

The DMV denied all three requests.

"It has been deemed to be a combination that refers to deity and has been denied based on that reason," the letter read.

Byrne appealed, but an administrative judge upheld the denial, the lawsuit stated.

State law allows DMV to reject a word or phrase considered offensive or confusing to the general public.

The regulations state that license plates are not allowed to have a combination of letters or numbers that refer in any language to race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation.

Bonnie Rutledge, DMV commissioner, said yesterday that she had not yet seen the lawsuit.

"I don't know why it was turned down," she said. The commissioner did say that a vanity plate with three numerals cannot be issued.


Update
Vt. man blocked again in quest for 'JN36TN' vanity plate
'The DMV has the right to prohibit religious messages on license plates provided it does not discriminate based on the particular message or viewpoint,' federal magistrate judge finds. 08.16.07

Related

Vanity plate fight lands in Vermont high court

Similar battles seen across U.S. as states grapple with where to draw the line between free expression and words that might offend. 03.20.02

Woman resists DMV's call to return anti-Bush license plate
South Dakota official says that although only one person complained about 'MPEACHW' message, that's all it takes to recall a set of vanity plates. 05.07.07

The GR8 debate over vanity license plates
By Ken Paulson Express yourself in seven letters or less. 08.26.01

License plates

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