Mo. ordered to issue ‘Choose Life’ license plates

Thursday, January 24, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A federal judge ruled yesterday that Missouri must issue a new specialty license plate that reads “Choose Life.”

The Alliance Defense Fund sued in June 2006 on behalf of Choose Life of Missouri and the group’s president. The suit alleged lawmakers violated free-speech, due-process and equal-protection rights by rejecting Choose Life’s application for the specialty plate while approving other proposals.

The suit named as defendants Department of Revenue Director Trish Vincent and the 14 members of a joint House and Senate Transportation Committee, which rejected the application after two abortion-rights members objected without giving a reason.

For a new specialty plate to be approved, no committee members can oppose it. A formal objection from two senators or five House members before a vote also kills it.

The lawsuit alleged the process was too vague because “there are no objective standards or written criteria to govern the Joint Committee’s decision regarding whether an eligible organization’s plate design is approved.”

Judge Scott Wright agreed. In ruling that the Choose Life plates must be issued, he found that state law on the matter was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.”

“The Court agrees that the topic of abortion is a politically sensitive arena and harbors some trepidation about the abortion debate on license plates,” Wright wrote in Choose Life of Missouri v. Vincent. “However, the proverbial door has been opened and the statute in question fails to include sufficient guidelines and safeguards to protect against viewpoint discrimination.”

He declined to rule on the claims that rejection of the plate constituted due-process and equal-protection violations.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that advocates for religious freedom, praised the ruling in a written statement.

“Pro-life organizations shouldn’t be penalized for expressing their beliefs,” wrote Joel Oster, the group’s senior legal counsel. “Unfortunately, that’s how Missouri officials unfairly discriminated when they denied Choose Life the right to exercise their free speech rights, and today the court agreed.”

Revenue Department spokesman David Griffith said the agency had no stand on the issue, noting its only role was to notify Choose Life of Missouri that the plate had been rejected and refund 97% of the $5,000 application fee, as required.

“It’s a Legislature subcommittee that decides on the issuance of new plates,” Griffith said in a telephone interview.

Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ballwin, the joint committee’s chairman, said he had supported the plate. But he said his opinion was irrelevant because the committee was merely following procedure when it rejected the application.

“It just says ‘Choose Life,’” said Onge, who considers himself anti-abortion. “It doesn’t say ban abortion. I thought it was proper and a very innocent thing, but there were a couple members of the committee who didn’t see it that way.”

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