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.


John Hummel said...

I'd say go for it. This may be "offensive" to a subset of the population, but considering that you are attacking no specific religion nor using offensive language or references, I think you have a case.

Let us know how it turns out!

szm said...

Do they allow people to express their lurve for Jeebus, et al?

TripleFive said...

"Do they allow people to express their lurve for Jeebus, et al?"

Yes, there is a state sponsored "IN GOD WE TRUST" plate that is a free option to the generic standard plate.

I really hate that damn plate.

Nickname unavailable said...

I think szm was asking if Indiana has allowed PLP's (ha, acronym) that might say something like "LUV4GOD", "GODRULES", or some other religious theme.

I see 'em quite frequently here in Ohio and they always give me a bit of amusement and a dash of irritation.

Paul Hurtado said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ObSciGuy said...

Encourage folks in the area to send you photos of any Indiana license plates (or other states?) they come across that qualify as (1) religious expression and/or (2) potentially offensive (other?)? A few Sundays spent checking parking lots of carefully chosen locations could likely turn up a few? I would think that having examples of what they have already allowed would be an essential baseline for comparison. All that, or simply acquire the license plate database from the BMV! ;) You could probably use www.flickr.com or other online photo sharing websites for this purpose.

bluegargoyle said...

Good luck. The fundie plates are hostile and unconstitutional to begin with. Government bureaucracy is already bad enough without mixing in bronze age mythology. I hope you succeed.

MasterAdrian said...

Great share!
You could try "IN NO GOD I TRUST", in contradiction to the "IN GOD WE TRUST" plate.......
Just a suggestion

Chris said...

I say if you did get that license plate be careful. I feel like a lot of people could be incredibly offended and take their road rage out on you. Just because you want to flaunt your belief doesn't mean the rest of the world will play nice with you.

Eric said...

Good work man! Fight for what is right! I can't believe they turned that down! Just like how I can't believe in God...

Wulfy said...

This is extraordinary.

It just supports the assertion that some people may make that the US in fact is not a modern nation based on ideals of freedom and justice but an anachronistic religious fundamentalist state where the few radical religious fanatics have seized the power through stealth.

Good luck.

jdb said...

THanks for the positive and supportive comments. Chris, not sure where you fall on it but how is this plate "flaunting my belief" and more than those damn In God We Trust plates? Or is it just "flaunting" when it's a minority belief?

R A Ford said...

Great work! Keep it up!

mileszs said...

In case this got lost in the Reddit comments, here is some context related to that 'BE GODS' license plate that I think may be useful to you: http://www.alliancedefensefund.org/news/story.aspx?cid=4874

Good luck, man. Davey and I will keep our eyes peeled for plates that may be helpful to you.

Trina said...

Please contact me via the e-mail address that I assume you can see - I would like to write an article about this.

jdb said...

Unfortunately, blogger doesn't show me email addresses of commenters. If you have Twitter you can drop me a line @xtrarant or email me

jborneman at that mail service called gmail


katefate said...

I got new plates in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, and they tried to hand me the In God We Trust plates. I like the logo from the state flag for the default plates. I thought one had to *request* the religious plates. Creeped me out to have to ask for the regular plates.

jdb said...

I've heard ALOT of stories like that, of people being offered the IGWT plates right off the bat like that. It's something that eventually the BMV is going to have to crack down on. I assume it's employees injecting their own views and who see it as a way they can proselytize.