A federal lawsuit in Kentucky over the denial of an irreverent license plate has been given the green light by the presiding judge.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky man denied a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Friday, March 31, rejected the state’s argument that the Kentucky transportation secretary is immune from a lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed because personalized plate messages are “government speech.”
In briefing the court, the plaintiff’s attorneys contended, “For more than one hundred years, it has been clearly established that plaintiffs may bring official-capacity claims against state officials to enjoin those officials from committing future violations of individuals’ federally protected rights, such as the claims asserted in this case.” Van Tatenhove agreed.
Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials, who have approved religious personalized plates, first refused ACLU-KY/FFRF client Ben 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 certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, specifically denial of plates based on vague notions of “good taste.” It also contests viewpoint or content-based restrictions on personalized plates that communicate religious, anti-religious or political messages.
Hart had the same personalized license plate issued by the state of Ohio for 12 years prior to moving to the commonwealth.
“I simply want the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” Hart has said. “There is nothing ‘obscene or vulgar’ about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”
The ACLU-KY/FFRF lawsuit argues that Hart's proposed license plate is fully protected individual speech, which Kentucky DMV officials may not suppress using content-based, viewpoint-based, vague or overboard standards.
“We are looking forward to having this case resolved on the merits,” says FFRF Senior Legal Counsel Patrick Elliott.
“Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based for reasons we believe violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” says ACLU-KY Attorney Heather Gatnarek. “We’ll be making that argument to the court as the case moves forward.”
Hart is seeking approval of his license plate application, and a finding by the court that provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog organization with more than 33,000 nonreligious members and 20 chapters all over the country, including hundreds of members and a state chapter in Kentucky.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky is freedom's watchdog, working daily in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend individual rights and personal freedoms. For additional information, visit its website at www.aclu-ky.org.