'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Plates such as “BAD HASS,” “MERLOT,” “MPEACHW,” “GOES211”and “ISNOGOD” have all been rescinded by various state DMVs after complaints were filed.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.”

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