(CN) - The 2nd Circuit struck down a Vermont law banning religious vanity licenses plates, saying it "impermissibly restricts expression from a religious viewpoint and thus violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment."
Shawn Byrne challenged the law after the state turned down his application for a license plate with "JN36TN," a reference to the often-quoted Bible verse John 3:16.
Byrne argued that the state's ban on religious vanity plates violated his First and 14th Amendments rights.
Vermont claimed the ban is meant to prevent the "distraction and disruption [that would] result from controversial speech" and to "disassociate" the state from speech it doesn't endorse.
U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha sided with the state, but the Manhattan-based federal appeals court reversed, saying the state couldn't justify such viewpoint discrimination.
Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston pointed out that the state would have allowed "JN36TN" had Byrne offered a secular meaning for it for, by example, telling the DMV clerk that his name is John, he's 36 and he was born in Tennessee.
"Of course, no one other than Byrne himself and the DMV clerk processing his application would know the difference -- to all outside observers, the issued plate would appear the same irrespective of Byrne's supplied meaning -- and yet the state would have us approve as 'reasonable' its attempt to distinguish between the two applications for the same plate," Livingston wrote.
"This we decline to do. The state offers no legitimate government interest furthered in drawing such a distinction, nor can we discern any."