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If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Your License Plates May Now Say So


Happy Monday morning everyone.

It's an especially happy Monday morning for religious Vermonters, because on Friday, the 2nd Circuit held that the state's prohibition on religious vanity license plates was unconstitutional.

Mark Hamblett has the story at the New York Law Journal, and here's a link to the opinion, Byrne v. Rutledge, authored by a panel consisting of three of the four female jurists on the court -- Judges Amalya Kearse, Reena Raggi, and Debra Livingston (this fact mentioned for purposes of trivia only; I am not suggesting that the gender makeup of the panel had any bearing on the outcome of the case, so calm down).

The opinion reveals some interesting tidbits about how the statute, which forbids any “combination[] of letters or numbers that refer, in any language, to a ... religion” or “deity,” had been applied. The plaintiff in Byrne applied for a plate reading "JN36TN," a reference to the favorite bible verse of sports fans everywhere. He was denied. This, despite the fact that other drivers had been given plates reading "BUDDHA" and "KALI." The former was ok because it was, supposedly, the driver's nickname, and the latter, the name of the driver's horse.

You see, in Vermont, in order to get vanity plates, you need to fill out a sworn affidavit explaining what your proposed alphanumeric combination "represents" to you. As the plaintiff noted in his briefing, if he had sworn that the plate he asked for meant that his name was John, he was 36 years old, and was born in Tennessee, the plate would likely have been issued.

The court saw the inherent problems with the statute and its application, and held that "Vermont’s ban on religious messages in practice operates not to restrict speech to certain subjects but instead to distinguish between those who seek to express secular and religious views on the same subjects."

So back to the drawing board for the state legislators. Fortunately, the Court was not called upon to express any opinion about the portion of the statute providing that "'69' formats are prohibited unless used in combination with the vehicle make, for example, '69 CHEV.'"




Posted by Eric Lipman on October 11, 2010 at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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