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Woman claims discrimination against atheists in NJ license plate lawsuit

Published time: April 18, 2014 23:48
Edited time: April 19, 2014 04:01
Photo by Thomas Anderson / flickr.com

Photo by Thomas Anderson / flickr.com

A New Jersey woman is suing the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission for denying her attempt to keep God off her vanity license plate by proclaiming her atheism.

The defendant in the case, Shannon Morgan, attempted to purchase a vanity plate from the MVC website in November 2013, entering “8THEIST” as her desired personalization, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday. But the website denied her request, stating, “Requested plate text is considered objectionable.”

The complaint says that Morgan then decided to experiment with other, more religious requests.

“Confused about why the Commission considered her proposed plate objectionable, Ms. Morgan entered 'BAPTIST' and discovered that the website did not flag this proposal as ‘objectionable.’ Instead, it displayed a preview of a personalized license plate reading 'BAPTIST' and permitted her to continue the application.”

Morgan then attempted to contact the MVC to inquire as to why the “8THEIST” plate was rejected and to ask for help in obtaining the plate. At this point, MVC employees gave her the runaround, according to the suit. Finally, Morgan sent the agency a certified letter reiterating her desire to obtain the vanity plate and find out why it had been deemed objectionable. She received no response.

Because the state did not find a potential “BAPTIST” plate objectionable, the suit says, Morgan believes that the state therefore favors religion over non-belief, which discriminates against atheists like herself.

The executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, agreed. “The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief. It simply has no right to do that,” he said in a statement. “This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem – atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens.”

AU is an advocacy group based in Washington, DC that is representing Morgan in the lawsuit against Raymond Martinez, the chair of the New Jersey MVC.

“This isn’t a frivolous lawsuit. All the MVC had to do was say ‘yes’ to the plate — or provide a compelling reason when saying ‘no.’ They did neither,” blogger Hemant Mehta wrote on the Friendly Atheist. “Since MVC officials research all vanity plates before approving them, this isn’t just a computer glitch. Someone thinks ‘atheist’ is a dirty, offensive, objectionable word.”

This is not the first time the New Jersey MVC has faced allegations of discrimination against atheists. In August 2013, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said the MVC rejected his request for an “ATHE1ST” plate, sending a letter that called the term “objectionable.” When Silverman tried to clarify what this meant, an employee allegedly told him that the proposed license plate was “offensive.”

Silverman filed an appeal with the MVC, and was soon notified that the state of New Jersey had reversed its ruling and would allow the “ATHE1ST” license plate. MVC Spokeswoman Elyse Coffey blamed the initial decision on a clerical error, arguing that a clerk exceeded her authority by calling the proposed plate offensive.

The lawsuit notes that the occurrence of two rejections of similar vanity plates within three months of each other shows discrimination against atheists and expresses a preference by the state for religion over atheism.

“The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions are mean-spirited and derogatory,” Ayesha N. Khan, the AU’s legal director, said in the statement. “They’re also unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse belief over non-belief.”

Morgan is requesting she be allowed the “8THEIST” vanity plate and asks that the MVC “adopt and implement a regulatory scheme that requires any restriction of expression on personalized license plates to be based on specific, objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria,” the lawsuit states.

Sandy Grossman, a spokesperson for the New Jersey MVC, told NJ.com, “We review every request personally...and we review them for anything that’s offensive [or] objectionable.” She said that officials research the meaning of each request, and those officials send a letter to the requestor if they are unsure of the meaning.