Appeals court in NYC knocks down Vermont rule banning religious expression on license plates

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vt. man wins religious vanity plates case appeal

NEW YORK — “THE REV” and “PSALM48″ can join “ARMYMOM” and “DARE2BU” on the license plates of cars in Vermont after a federal appeals court ruled Friday that the First Amendment leaves room for religion on vanity plates.

The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reversed a lower-court ruling in the state’s favor in a case brought by Shawn Byrne of West Rutland, Vt., whose proposed vanity plate reference to a Bible passage had been rejected by the state in 2004.

Byrne appealed a September 2007 decision by a federal judge in Burlington, Vt., that rejected his 2005 claim that the state discriminated against him when it rejected his application for a license plate that would read: “JN36TN,” a reference to the often-quoted Bible verse John 3:16.

Byrne did not immediately return a telephone message for comment.

Tom McCormick, an assistant attorney general, did not immediately respond to a phone message either.

In ruling, the 2nd Circuit noted that Vermont allows its residents to express themselves about personal philosophy and taste and to put inspirational messages and statements of affiliation on their license plates. But religion is ruled out.

Thus, the state’s vehicles have plates such as: “BUTCHER,” ”BKEEPER,” ”LUV2FSH,” ”GOYANKS,” ”PEACE2U,” ”THNKPOS” and “MISUDAD.” But not “REV 3 20″ or “UM REV” and the like.

“The state rejected Byrne’s message only because it addressed … areas of otherwise permissible expression from a religious perspective,” the appeals court wrote. “This the state cannot do.”

It emphasized that its ruling was limited to the state’s ban on religious messages, an area where it said the Supreme Court has been “extensive and clear” in its guidance.

As a result, it said, the state can keep its ban on vanity plates that refer to scatological subjects, genitalia, illicit drugs, racial epithets and other objectionable material.

The appeals court noted that the state’s rules against religious expression on vanity plates had sometimes been unevenly applied.

For instance, it said, “GENESIS” can appear on a license plates as long as the driver insists it is a reference to a rock group rather than the Old Testament. And it said Byrne had shown that his proposed license plate would have been approved if he had given the state a secular meaning, saying he chose “JN36TN” because his name is John, he is 36 years old and he was born in Tennessee.

Associated Press Writer John Curran in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.

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