Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF, ACLU file for summary judgment over license plate

Vol. 36 No. 04 May 2019
Bennie Hart shows off his “IM GOD” license plate he had while living in Ohio. Now in Kentucky, Hart has sued because the DMV turned down his request for that plate.           

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky on April 15 filed for summary judgment in a federal lawsuit over an atheist being denied an irreverent license plate in Kentucky.

FFRF and the ACLU sued the Kentucky transportation secretary in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky citizen, Bennie Hart, who was refused a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove last year allowed the case to move forward.

The summary judgment request is asking the judge to rule in favor of Hart without going to trial, and to strike down parts of Kentucky’s personalized plate law.

Kentucky DMV officials first refused Hart’s request in early 2016, calling his license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges the denial of plates based on such vague notions. It also contests viewpoint or content-based restrictions on personalized plates.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that while the government may choose its own message, the free speech clause applies to private speech, as the latest motion, filed on April 15, asserts. It is of little significance that the state prints the plate. Private speech is routinely permitted on government property. Kentucky’s plate restriction on the basis that an individual seeks to promote “any specific faith, religion, or antireligion” is accordingly unconstitutional, FFRF and the ACLU maintain.

Furthermore, “not only is Kentucky’s application of the statutes unconstitutional on its face, it is impermissibly viewpoint-discriminatory and unreasonable as applied to Mr. Hart’s plate request,” the motion contends. So, plates with the phrases “SRVGOD” and “THXGOD” have been approved, while “IM GOD” was denied.

The First Amendment prohibits the Kentucky government from selectively rejecting certain religious or nonreligious messages, and its pattern of allowing certain religious messages demonstrates that its decision to reject Hart’s plate is based on his specific viewpoint. Hart maintained a license plate with the same text requested here, “IM GOD,” for 12 years in Ohio without any issues.

“This is a clear denial of free speech on capricious and random grounds,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Kentucky officials can’t suppress freethinking perspectives while permitting religious statements.”