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6th Circuit allows Tenn. 'Choose Life' license plates

By The Associated Press
03.17.06

NASHVILLE — A federal appeals court today allowed Tennessee to offer anti-abortion license plates bearing the message "Choose Life."

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overturned a lower court ruling that said the tag illegally promoted only one side of the abortion debate.

"Although this exercise of government one-sidedness with respect to a very contentious political issue may be ill-advised, we are unable to conclude that the Tennessee statute contravenes the First Amendment," Judge John M. Rogers said in a 2-1 ruling.

The First Amendment does not prohibit the government from using private volunteers to put out its message, Rogers said, even if that message is controversial or politically divisive.

An anti-abortion group, Tennessee Right to Life, declared victory.

"It's a validation of our position all along that the Legislature had the authority to authorize a plate that favors normal childbirth over the practice of abortion," said Brian Harris, the group's president.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. said the specialty-plate program is unconstitutional because it discriminates against one side in the abortion debate.

An attempt to create a "Choose Choice" tag failed in the Legislature in 2002.

Federal appeals courts have been divided over whether such license-plate programs are constitutional. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that said similar South Carolina license plates violated the First Amendment.

Drivers will be able to pay an extra fee in Tennessee for the "Choose Life" plate, and some of the proceeds will go to New Life Resources, an anti-abortion group.

Tennessee is the 13th state to offer "Choose Life" plates. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Most states donate proceeds to adoption groups, but Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland and Montana donate at least some of the money to anti-abortion groups.

Tennessee has more than 120 specialty plates, most of them saluting uncontroversial subjects such as the Tennessee Titans football team, the Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee Walking Horse.

Gov. Phil Bredesen let the anti-abortion license-plate measure become law but declined to sign it, and he urged lawmakers to develop a new approach to deciding which causes would benefit from the sale of specialty plates.

The state of Tennessee did not appeal the district court ruling that outlawed the plates. Instead, New Life Resources intervened and took the case to the 6th Circuit.

In his dissent, Martin mocked the notion that Tennessee's specialty plates were promoting a government message. He called the license plates "a forum for private speakers."

If the license-plate program were promoting a government message, then the state wouldn't offer a car tag saluting Tennessee's archrival in football, the University of Florida and its alligator mascot, Martin said.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, a plaintiff in the case, said the ruling "fails to protect free speech and permits viewpoint discrimination."

Weinberg said the ACLU hadn't decided whether it would appeal to the Supreme Court.

"We don't think it's in the state's best interest to be promoting such a one-sided view," said Keri Adams, vice president of community for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, another plaintiff.


Update
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

Previous
Judge rejects Tennessee 'Choose Life' plates
'It's a great irony to claim to protect free speech by eliminating it,' says Tennessee Right to Life president. 09.25.04

Related

S.C. 'Choose Life' license plates put on hold

Federal judge grants preliminary injunction sought by Planned Parenthood. 11.20.01

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