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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

In 2007, after the Texas legislature added the words "under God" to the Texas Pledge of Allegiance, Dan Croft sued to have the phrase removed, alleging a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. Croft argued that the pledge should represent every Texan and that for schoolchildren across the state to say "under God" every morning violates the separation of church and state.

Last month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed a lower court's upholding of the phrase's inclusion. The court found it to be a "patriotic exercise, and it is made no less so by the acknowledgement of Texas' religious heritage via the inclusion of the phrase 'under God.'" The court declared that a pledge may reference a religious belief without necessarily valuing one belief over another. The Texas pledge will continue to be recited as: "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."

Silent majority

In 2007 the Illinois Legislature amended the "Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act" to make a moment of "silent reflection" at the start of each school day mandatory. Dawn Sherman, a student at Township High School in Buffalo Grove, and her father Rob, an atheist, brought suit against the state and school alleging the amendment violates the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Last month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in a 2-1 panel, reversed the lower court and held the law as constitutional because it was passed for a secular purpose-to settle down the students at the start of each day. The panel ruled that the bill makes no requirement that students use this time to pray or engage in any other religious meditation: It merely mandates silence. Dissenting Justice Ann Claire Williams disagreed, preferring to "call a spade a spade-statutes like these are about prayer in schools."


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