'8THEIST' license plate in NJ: Why states can't rein in the vanity plate monster

States have struggled to balance the innocent against the indecent when it comes to personal exhortations on state-owned license plates. First Amendment issues are at stake.

If you can get a New Jersey vanity license plate that reads “BAPTIST,” why not one that reads “8THEIST”?

That’s the question Shannon Morgan, a self-describe atheist, is asking in a lawsuit after the New Jersey department of motor vehicles denied her vanity plate application.

Her main complaint is a bureaucracy deeming that “8THEIST” has connotations that offend “good taste and decency,” the bar which the state uses to judge the suitability of personalized plate messages. She also wants the state to adopt a more “viewpoint-neutral” vanity plate approval policy, since when she typed “BAPTIST” into the DMV application it was accepted.

Given that a joke is judged by the chuckle of the beholder, states have struggled in recent years to balance the innocent against the indecent when it comes to personal exhortations on state-owned license plates.

Plates such as “BAD HASS,” “MERLOT,” “MPEACHW,” “GOES211”and “ISNOGOD” have all been rescinded by various state DMVs after complaints were filed. Meanwhile, “AAAGH,” “K BYE” and “TIKL ME” are all fine. Americans take to vanity plates like flies to molasses, with some 10 million in circulation, meaning millions in extra revenue for the state. Ronald Reagan had his own California plate: “GIPPER.”

But in the pantheon of questionable vanity plates, the atheist question runs deeper. Litigants in Utah and Florida have successfully fought back complaints about their “ATHEIST” plates. Standards of good taste run all over the place, though. Not long ago, a Virginia woman had to return a plate that read “HAISSEM,” or “messiah” spelled backwards.

But the very process of a state board weighing free speech against good taste on plates presents tricky First Amendment problems, civil libertarians argue.

The New Jersey DMV vanity plate commission “has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheists, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for theism over non-theism,” Morgan’s lawsuit states.

An informal poll by a New Jersey newspaper suggested that Morgan has the people’s support, with three out of four respondents saying New Jersey should just give her a plate. (If not, as one commenter noted, Morgan should try to get one that says “JRZ SKS.”)

For the most part vanity plates amount to little more than an unusual, and often enjoyable, collaboration between the state and the individual.

But when it comes to debates about the state’s involvement in speech and religion, Americans have from day one been ready to rumble.

“I am so happy that this woman is taking this to court,” writes a commenter named John on NJ.com. “The fact that I can get Lovegod, Jesus, Baptist, BornAGN etc as a license plate but can't get 8theist is absurd.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to '8THEIST' license plate in NJ: Why states can't rein in the vanity plate monster
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today