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Vermont: Religious License Plates OK

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By Laura Strachan, Esq. on October 11, 2010 2:32 PM

John 3:16 is one of the more popular biblical verses -- often used in weddings and other Christian ceremonies, in addition to assuming more contemporary manifestations in the form of t-shirts, bracelets, and even magnets. So it would seem fitting that people may also want to express this verse on their license plate, right? JN36TN, the clever combination for a six character license plate was one way a Vermont resident attempted to express his religious beliefs on his license plate. Unfortunately before approval by the DMV, he needed approval by the Second Cicruit Court of Appeals.

Politics Daily reports on the religious license plates litigation that looked at whether or not religious messages were allowed to adorn a car's fender.

"In April 2004, Shawn Bryne applied for license plate 'JN36TN' which he intended as a reference to the biblical verse, John 3:16. His request was denied. So he sued the government asserting that the state's vanity-plates rules violated his First Amendment right to be free from religious discrimination."

The religious vanity plate denial was initially upheld under the rationale that the denial was neutral in its application (and therefore not discriminating specifically against religion or a singe religion), the decision has now been reversed.

Specialized vanity plates are a source of self identification for the vehicle owner. Whether expressing an appreciation for his or her favorite sports team or putting a clever twist on a life-long nickname, they are an increasingly popular way to personalize a vehicle. The religious license plates opinion (Byrne v. Rutledge) was based on continuing to allow this source of self-expression. The opinion compares religious-based plates to those in which a driver wishes to express a personal philosophy or belief, such as CARPDM or PEACE2U. The opinion also notes that the ban on religious plates was not neutral, and ultimately represented an unconstitutional type of viewpoint discrimination. Those applications seeking to display of objectionable material (drugs, racial epithets, etc) will still be denied.

The state of Vermont argued that allowing religious plates represent a risk of disruption and distraction to fellow drivers, and also noted concerns that some motorists would see the plates as government endorsement of a particular view. In the end, the court saw the plates as a form of personal expression and gave the green light for religious plates. The purpose of a license plate is to help with tracking and registration. In allowing specialized vanity plates, state's are generating additional revenue, and providing an outlet for driver individuality. Although vanity plates have nothing to do with the rationale behind a license plate, the latest opinion on the issues shows that if a state is going to allow for some specialized plates, then they need to allow for religious ones too.

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