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Vt. man blocked again in quest for 'JN36TN' vanity plate

By The Associated Press,
First Amendment Center Online staff

RUTLAND, Vt. — A man who wants a biblical reference on his vanity license plate has been dealt another setback in his 2 ½-year legal fight with the state of Vermont, with a judge siding with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“The DMV has the right to prohibit religious messages on license plates provided it does not discriminate based on the particular message or viewpoint,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerome J. Niedermeier wrote in his 23-page report filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington.

Shawn Byrne, of West Rutland, wants a license plate that reads “JN36TN,” shorthand for John 3:16, a Bible passage that reads: “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 state rejected his first two vanity plate requests — for “JOHN316” and “JN316” — saying they would have violated a rule against vanity plates with more than two numerals.

His third request, for the “JN36TN” plate, has been rejected because it conflicts with rules banning religious viewpoints on license plates, according to the state.

Last year, Niedermeier agreed to review whether the DMV was fairly implementing its vanity-plate policy.

In his report, filed Aug. 9, Niedermeier concluded that in denying Byrne’s request, the DMV had properly applied its policy.

“The state DMV has endeavored, though not perfectly, to restrict all references to any religion or deity from Vermont vanity plates. Such a practice is content-restrictive, not viewpoint-discriminatory,” Niedermeier wrote. “There is no evidence that [Byrne’s] application was denied based on a bias against his viewpoint, Christianity or the Bible; but rather, because it was a reference to religion.”

Niedermeier also said the state had refused to issue other religious plates.

“Since May 2004, the DMV has rejected plates referring to the Bible, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Wicca,” he wrote.

Jeremy Tedesco, Byrne’s attorney, said Aug. 14 that he planned to file an objection to the magistrate judge’s report. He said the state has issued plates such as “4PEACE,” “GOSOLAR” “REBEL” “ALL4LUV,” “VEGAN” and “BEHAPPY.”

“When the state opens up vanity plates to wide-open expression on virtually any subject matter, including what people personally believe as their philosophy and belief system, they can’t prohibit Christians or religious people from expressing their point of view on that same subject matter,” said Tedesco, of the the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing Byrne.

Assistant Attorney General Bridget Asay could not be reached for comment.

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