An “8THEIST” license plate request from a New Jersey atheist woman was denied after the state deemed her religious – or perhaps more appropriately put, non-religious – vanity plate “inappropriate.” The woman is now suing the state of New Jersey, claiming a violation of First Amendment rights.
According to CNN on April 20, Shannon Morgan of Leesburg, New Jersey “identifies as an atheist and wants the world, or at least the car behind her, to know it. But the state of New Jersey says no.” The suit, filed Thursday by Morgan, says her online application for the plate was rejected on the grounds “that the message ‘may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.’”
Morgan now says that her state's decision is a clear violation of her First Amendment rights to free speech and equal religious protection – even if she claims to not believe in a Divine being or identify with any organized religious group.
“There is nothing offensive about being atheist,” Morgan told the South Jersey Times. “I should be able to express my sincerely held beliefs with a license plate just like everyone else.”
To prove her point, Morgan decided to register another religious vanity plate, choosing to go with “BAPTIST.” This time, her application was approved by the state with no qualms. Armed with proof of the double standard and claiming her constitutional rights were violated, Morgan enlisted attorney Ayesha N. Khan, the Legal Director from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Says Khan in a statement: “The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions are mean-spirited and derogatory… They’re also unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse belief over non-belief.”
A spokesperson from the state only reiterated the fact that reviews are done on each request based on their own merit, and would not comment on Morgan’s suit, which is seeking the right to own the vanity plate along with reimbursement of any attorney fees incurred.
“We review every request personally ... and we review them for anything that’s offensive or objectionable,” said Sandy Grossman from the Motor Vehicle Commission.
According to the Daily News, this is “not the first time an atheist has tangled with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. David Silverman, the president of New Jersey-based American Atheist, requested a plate last August reading “ATHE1ST.” He was denied at first, but after a brief flap was granted the plate.”
Americans United executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn said: “The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief. It simply has no right to do that. This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem — atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens.”