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N.J. OKs 'ATHE1ST' License Plate After Clerk Deems It 'Offensive'

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on August 29, 2013 3:59 PM

New Jersey has approved a prominent resident's "ATHE1ST" license plate, clearing up a snafu in which the application had been denied for being "offensive."

After David Silverman, president of American Atheists Inc., was refused his "offensive" vanity plate, he took to Twitter, calling the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission's (MVC) actions "outrageously discriminatory," reports CBS New York.

Public outcry may have been the reason for the quick turnaround, but can states actually outlaw certain vanity plates?

MVC Clerk Went Too Far

Silverman's case seems to have resolved itself without much pushback from the state; an MVC spokesperson agreed on Thursday that the clerk responsible for the original denial had "exceeded her authority," reports CBS New York.

However, the MVC has banned other letter/number combinations from license plates. In 2010, for example, a New Jersey woman had her "BIOCH" plate stripped from her after the MVC deemed it "profane and objectionable."

New Jersey, like many other states, has public accommodation laws preventing the government from discriminating on the basis of religion, so Silverman may have had a decent case -- if the state hadn't granted his request.

In other states like Vermont, banning vanity plates with religious messages has been found to be illegal viewpoint discrimination. So generally banning plates which declare the driver's staunch atheism may not be on solid legal ground.

Vanity Plate Battles Revving Up?

You may think that tying up the courts and public agencies in a fervent legal battle over an embossed piece of metal is inane, but Silverman's case is hardly the first in the war of the vanity plates.

In January, Georgia was sued over a request for a "GAYGUY" plate which was denied. The case eventually ended in a settlement that allowed the "GAYPWR" license plate, but Georgia's list of more than 10,000 banned tags still includes phrases with "profanity" or even the word "hate."

License plates may be a form of personal expression, but there are legal ways for states to restrict speech or expression, especially when dealing with profanity or obscenity, without violating First Amendment free speech rights.

So while "ATHE1ST" should remain a decent license plate option, letter-number combos that seek to disparage a particular religion will remain off-limits for New Jersey drivers.

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