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Joe Sohm/Newscom

Plates protected

Law | Appeals court overturns rejection of religious vanity plates in Vermont

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

In 2004, Vermont resident John Byrne applied for a vanity plate with the state's motor vehicle department. The proposed plate read "JN36TN," referencing John 3:16 from the Bible. Section 304(d)(4) of title 23 of the Vermont Statutes prohibits any vanity license plate that refers, "in any language, to a . . . religion" or "deity." Officials denied Byrne's application.

One court upheld that decision, but last month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed that judgment and ruled that the statute violates the First Amendment's free speech clause. Justices said the state's method of relying on the applicant's supplied meaning to determine the plate's meaning creates arbitrary results. For example, the state approved "BUDDHA" because the applicant claimed it to be a nickname, but denied "JMJ1" because the applicant said it means "Jesus, Mary, Joseph 1": The first applicant obviously referenced religion but offered a secular meaning while the second applicant gave a religious meaning to something not overtly religious.

The appeals court also determined the state cannot distinguish between the expression of secular and religious beliefs. Based on the court's holding, previously denied plates, including "PRAY," "ONEGOD," and "THEREV," can join approved value-laden plates such as "CARP DM," "PEACE2U," and "LIVFREE."

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Texas pledge

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