Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Free Speech, Religion & License Plates

Finally, a reason to post on this poor neglected blog!

About a year ago, I got it in my head to apply for a personalized license plate in the state of Indiana. The plate would read "NO GODS", my little response to the annoying and ever more present "In God We Trust" official Indiana license plates. I figured if it was okay for the state of Indiana to officially endorse religion (and specifically the Christian religion, no matter what they might say about "God" being ambiguous), then it would be okay for me to personally request my belief in no gods.

Having forgot about my application, I didn't even think about it until I received a letter from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles:
Dear Mr. B_______,

The personalized license plate ("PLP") referenced above has been denied as inappropriate due to form or content.
There's more, but it's basically telling me I can ask for a replacement PLP or request an appeal via an administrative hearing. Obviously, you know which option I am choosing. I decided to look up the relevant text related to allowable PLPs on the BMV website.

Personalized license plates allow creativity; however, under Indiana Statue IC 9-18-15-4 (b) the BMV may refuse to issue a combination of letters or numerals, or both, that carry a connotation offensive to good taste and decency.

The BMV will deny a personalized license plate request if an objective, reasonable person would find that the customer’s proposed expression on the personalized license plate application is determined to carry a connotation offensive to good taste and decency, is misleading, or is otherwise prohibited. [emphasis added]

The question becomes, is the phrase "NO GODS" offensive to an "objective, reasonable person"? The only other portion of the guidelines above that could be a sticking point is "or is otherwise prohibited." If by that they include to mean a statement of religion, it is my opinion that a prohibition of religion on license plates went out the window when Indiana approved the "In God We Trust" license plate. If it is okay for citizens of Indiana to proclaim their religion via an Indiana license plate, not allowing me to proclaim my lack of religion seems to be a pretty obvious case of the state government favoring or promoting one religion or belief system over another (or over a lack thereof).

I've contacted both the Indiana ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation for their opinion and possible assistance. The FFRF responded quite quickly, saying they believe I have the BMV "in a pickle" but to wait for the ACLU-IN since the "In God We Trust" license plate issue was their baby back when that plate first came around. I'm hoping to hear from them soon before sending in my official appeal to the BMV for an administrative hearing. Either way, even if the ACLU doesn't take my case I plan on fighting this as much as possible.

If you have any suggestions, recommendations or help you can offer please let me know in the comments.

Update: Thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend for posting this to reddit. Check this blog for future updates, or just watch http://tcmso.blogspot.com/search/label/jdbvsbmv

Update II: Thanks to the reddit post, I've found another Indiana resident fighting the same fight, in his case for a "GODLESS" plate and who has already been in contact with the ACLU-IN and American Humanist Association. Hoping we can pool resources.

Also, thanks to Hemant Mehta for sharing the story via the consistently good read The Friendly Atheist.

Once I know more and have sent out my official appeal for an administrative hearing, I'll put up a new post.

Update III: I'll have to do a new post catching everything up sooner than I thought, but until then this: The reddit thread is really becoming a good source. First the other Hoosier fighting for a GODLESS plate and now a picture of a plate in the streets bearing the slogal "BE GODS." That will come in handy.