Rhode Island residents may announce their support for environmental conservation or the New England Patriots with their license plates, but they may not show support for unborn babies.
Last night Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, vetoed a bill allowing the sale of specialty license plates saying “Choose Life” across the top. Chafee said the plates “would violate the separation of church and state, one of the fundamental principles upon which our state was founded.”
Rhode Island has approved many specialty license plates for non-profit organizations. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles advertises “Order a Bristol Fourth of July plate. … Help support America's oldest fourth of July parade,” and “Order an Osprey plate and support Environmental Conservation.” Car owners also can purchase specialty licence plates with the Red Sox logo, a Mr. Potato Head doll, which supports a food bank, and plates that support the Plum Beach Lighthouse repainting effort.
The specialty plates are optional and carry an extra fee. According to state Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr., a Democrat, the specialty plates “generate a little more revenue for our state.” The government keeps half the money generated by sales, with the other half going to the cause supported by the plate. The other half of the “Choose Life” licence plate fees would have gone to support crisis pregnancy centers and alternative adoption options.
In his veto message, Chafee said he denied the pro-life plates because the only function of a license plate is “to register and identify a motor vehicle.” He later clarified his message, saying “Rhode Island residents may choose to purchase specialty license plates,” but only those that support politically neutral, secular organizations.
The Rhode Island legislature has tabled the bill two years in a row. According to Mike Krzywonos, a leader in the Choose Life Rhode Island organization, every time the bill comes up, “Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are there shooting it down.” The legislature finally passed the bill this summer, but after letting it sit on his desk for a while, Chafee vetoed it. But Krzywonos said his group will keep fighting. Members are meeting today to discuss plans, and will most likely reintroduce the bill next year.
Krzywonos said they are not introducing anything political or religious: “It’s two words, ‘Choose Life.’ … For some reason they are scared of that.”