License Plates and Religion

License plates, the world over, exist to help the police and the public  identify vehicles, drivers or passengers involved in crime or accidents. Israeli plates serve the same purpose. In addition, in areas east of the Green Line, different colored plates distinguish between Israeli and Palestinian vehicles. This differentiation causes confusion and controversy over whether this results in ethnic profiling.

In the US, license plate design and decorations create a different set of disputes. The states offer drivers a greater menu of ways to personalize their license plates than does Israel. In addition, unlike Israel, which exclusively uses numbers to identify the vehicle, motor vehicle authorities in the US use letters and numbers.

Varieties exist both in the background of the plates (specialty plates) and in the identification of the vehicle on the license tag (vanity plates). Specialty plates can advertise drivers’ memberships in voluntary associations (such as veterans groups) their businesses and other issues of interest to the plate holder.  The state incorporates these messages in the design of the plates as background for the individual identification code of the vehicle

In addition, vanity plate programs provide a means with which drivers can create their own overt or subliminal message tags, with letters and numbers or a combination of both  In all cases, the motor vehicle authority must authorize the change and the drivers pay extra for the privilege.

One person’s self-expression can strike others as provocation, especially when looking at license plates on passing cars  Just last week, a court settled one such dispute. Bennie Hart, an atheist living in Kentucky, applied for a tag “IM GOD” to convey that he did not believe in a Diety.  The state denied his request as incitement. A federal court in Frankfort, Kentucky ruled that the US Constitution protected his right to proclaim his irreligion on the vanity plates of his car. Hart v. Thomas.

On the other hand, four years ago, in a case involving specialty plates,  the US Supreme Court came out the other way. The justices ruled that the State of Texas may deny members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans  to exhibit the Confederate Battle Flag of the Civil War on their members’ specialty license plates. Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, 135 S.Ct 2239 (2015).

The Confederate Battle Flag came into vogue in the South during the desegregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time as Confederate monuments sprang up in the region. Right-wing supporters consider the flag as a symbol of bravery, progressives think of it as a symbol of slavery and racism. The Court ruled that Texas could ban the plates as inflammatory.

It all comes down to who is doing the talking. In the case of vanity plates, the Kentucky court ruled that the communication came from the driver in a space the state provided. In the Texas case, the Supreme Court ruled that special plates, which incorporate emblems in a collage with that of the government, amount to state speech. The government has a right to propagate its own views and reject those with which it disagrees, the Supreme Court explained.  On the other hand, the court in Kentucky held that the government may not filter private communications on what amount to public billboards . That amounts to censorship.

The court in Kentucky drew a fine distinction that somehow the canvass of the license plate contains private speech, but the frame conveys government speech. Given the current composition of the Supreme Court and the fact that four conservative justices thought that Texas illegally censored the Confederate veterans, Mr. Hart would win the right to his plates.  However, the Supreme Court made a telling point in the Texas case. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote,”Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate.”  As Justice Breyer explained, a person pays the extra fee for the vanity plate to imply state endorsement.

One can endorse a candidate on a bumper sticker, but not a license plate. One should keep religious views to the bumper sticker. Though King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity,” all messages do not belong on vanity plates.

About the Author
Joshua Z. Rokach is a retired appellate lawyer and a graduate of Yale Law School.