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Ill. officials must offer 'Choose Life' license plates

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO — A federal judge yesterday ordered state officials to offer license plates with the pro-adoption motto "Choose Life," brushing aside claims that the slogan is really a thinly disguised anti-abortion message.

Judge David H. Coar acknowledged concerns that the motto "Choose Life" could be considered an anti-abortion slogan — a worry that has doomed several years of efforts to get state legislative approval of the plates.

Coar said in his 20-page opinion in Choose Life Illinois v. White that he assumed that the request for a "Choose Life" license plate was prompted by a sincere interest in promoting adoption. He said the state must issue the plate as long as sponsors of the idea can meet certain numerical and design requirements.

State law initially required 10,000 people willing to buy such plates before they could be issued but that number now has been reduced to 850.

The secretary of state's office already issues 60 different kinds of specialty license plates to Illinois motorists. Groups with special plates dedicated to their interests range from pet lovers to environmentalists.

A group called Choose Life Illinois Inc., made up largely of adoption advocates, has been trying for several years to get legislative approval.

The state's refusal to allow the "Choose Life" license plates led to the federal lawsuit, which was filed by the group on June 28, 2004, and accused the secretary of state of violating members' constitutional rights.

The group's president, Jim Finnegan, could not be reached in time for this story. A message was left on his answering machine.

Coar's ruling was issued on the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, but made no mention of the 1973 case.

Some legislators have said they distrust putting the slogan on Illinois license plates, believing it represents an anti-abortion message.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, reached last night, said he believed the message was designed to campaign for a ban on abortions, saying both the adoption and anti-abortion causes have a number of the same sponsors.

"The anti-choice folks will look for any edge they can find to push their agenda," Lang said.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, a sponsor of the measure, hailed Coar's decision. He scoffed at the notion that the "Choose Life" campaign was a way of getting an anti-abortion message onto state highways.

"It's a pro-life message, for children, not necessarily abortion," he said. He acknowledged that the measure had been killed in committee at the Legislature by critics who saw the message in terms of the abortion issue.

Former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, R-Palos Park, another sponsor, said in a telephone interview last night that it made no difference even if "Choose Life" did represent an anti-abortion slogan.

"Does that make it bad?" O'Malley said. "Whether it is or it isn't you should still be allowed to express yourself."

Among those who were critical of the legislation when it was introduced was U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., then a state senator.

"If we're going to promote one side, the other side has to be promoted as well," Obama said at the time.

Coar said in his opinion that it was "undisputed that the reason for not approving the plate was because of the politically controversial nature of the message."

But he said the message would not be relevant in any case.

"The First Amendment protects unpopular, even some hateful speech," he said. "The message conveyed by the proposed license plate is subject to First Amendment protection."

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's office opposed the suit, saying it believes that there must be legislative approval before it can issue any kind of specialty license plates.

A spokesman, David Druker, said that the secretary of state's office plans to appeal Coar's decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We have no opinion on the message," Druker said.

"Choose Life" license plates have been approved in about a dozen U.S. states, in some cases by legislatures that have rejected proposals by abortion-rights advocates for license-plate designs supporting their viewpoint. Federal appeals courts have been divided on the issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals on the subject.


Court dismisses challenge to Ohio 'Choose Life' plates

Federal judge doesn't rule on merits of case but instead finds court lacks jurisdiction because money raised by sale of tags is tax revenue for state. 10.07.05

5th Circuit deadlocks on La. 'Choose Life' plates
Decision clears way for state to begin selling plates, but foes say they'll appeal to Supreme Court. 12.23.05

Tenn. 'Choose Life' plates halted by 6th Circuit
State ACLU chapter had asked appeals court to delay production while it appealed ruling to Supreme Court. 04.23.06

Justices spurn 'Choose Life' tag cases
Supreme Court refuses to consider Louisiana, Tennessee laws allowing drivers to pay extra for anti-abortion license plates. 06.26.06

High court won't hear challenge to Okla. 'Choose Life' plates
Plaintiffs say they'll continue to pursue part of case regarding access to funds generated by sale of specialty tags. 01.12.08

Mo. ordered to issue 'Choose Life' license plates
State had rejected group's application for tags, but federal judge finds law governing specialty plates is 'unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.' 01.24.08

9th Circuit: Ariz. wrong to deny 'Choose Life' plates
Unanimous three-judge panel finds state's decision not to issue specialty tag violates group's free-speech rights. 01.29.08

State-by-state statutes governing license plates
Compilation of state statutes, regulations on specialty plates, personalized plates. 01.20.06

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