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