Update: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has relented, approving Prebeg's request a couple of days ago. The department denied any ideological motive for the initial rejection and instead told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that "employee error" was to blame. FFRF welcomes the change of heart, regardless of the reason. “We’re glad that the attention we brought to the issue helped Jeff get the license plate he desired,” says Gaylor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is protesting the denial of a freethinking license plate to a Pennsylvania nonbeliever.
FFRF member Jeffrey Prebeg Jr. wanted one of three license plates: ATHE1ST, NO GOD, N0 G0D. All three of these plates were and are available, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicles' personalized registration plate availability website. However, Prebeg received an Oct. 11 letter stating, "We are unable to process your application because the department reserves the right to deny issuance to any requested personalized plate." Under the enclosures line, it read, "DENIED ... ATHE1ST, NO GOD, N0 G0D."
No specific reason was given for the rejection. It seems that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is relying on 67 Pa. Code 49.3 (b) (1): "A personal registration plate may not contain a combination of letters or numbers or both, which, in the judgment of the department, has connotations offensive to good taste or decency or would be misleading."
Such a rule is unconstitutional, however.
"The Bureau of Motor Vehicles restriction of the message because of the viewpoint being expressed violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down viewpoint discrimination by the government."
The proposed plate cannot be considered obscene under any interpretation of the First Amendment, FFRF asserts. Similar overbroad language has been challenged and struck down in a number of other states, such as Michigan, Missouri and Vermont. A Pennsylvania court would agree, as a 2010 case demonstrates. George Kalman wanted to name his film company "I Choose Hell Productions." When the state rejected the title as "blasphemous," a federal court ruled that this violated the First Amendment.
FFRF requests an assurance in writing that the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicles will approve Prebeg's license plate request. And it recommends that down the road, the Pennsylvania code regulating the issuance of license plates should be amended to comport with the First Amendment.
"Our government is not charged with protecting the religious sensibilities of citizens," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A minority viewpoint cannot be silenced just because it is unpopular or irreverent."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including almost 800 in Pennsylvania.