(CN) – New Jersey must face claims that it approved a personalized license plate that said “BAPTIST” but not one that said “8THEIST,” a federal judge ruled.
Shannon Morgan said she applied in November 2013 for the atheist-style vanity plate through the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website, which charges drivers a one-time fee of $50 for personalized plates in addition to the regular registration fee.
Her chosen number-letter combination “8THEIST” met the seven-character limit and requirement of including at least three letters, according to the complaint.
When the website barred Morgan from continuing the application process, however, calling the text she requested “objectionable,” Morgan entered “BAPTIST” instead, Morgan said.
The site allegedly displayed a preview of this plate and would have let Morgan continue the application.
Morgan said she then emailed the commission to inquire about the rejection of “8THEIST,” and the agency told her on Nov. 25 to call its Special Plate Unit for help.
Though a unit representative allegedly told Morgan that she would receive a return phone call from the commission within the next 24 hours, she never received a call.
Morgan said she sent the commission’s customer-service office a March 5, 2014, letter via certified mail, again asking why the “8THEIST” plate was prohibited.
While Morgan allegedly received the return receipt confirming that the letter was delivered, she said she never received a response from the commission.
Morgan’s lawsuit in Trenton against the commission’s chair and chief administrator alleges violations of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, free-exercise clause and free-speech clause, and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
The commission then allegedly notified Morgan that it would issue her “8THEIST” license plate if she were to submit an application by mail.
Morgan amended her complaint on Sept. 19, adding that when she applies for personalized plates for herself or her daughter in the future, she will again be denied based on “the commission’s rule [of] banning license plates ‘offensive to good taste and decency.'”
She told the court that the commission denied an application submitted by David Silverman, president of American Atheists, for a plate reading “ATHE1ST” in 2013.
U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson advanced three of Morgan’s claims last week – that the personalized-plate rule on “good taste and decency” is overbroad on its face, void for vagueness, and imposes a prior restraint on protected speech.
Citing the Motor Vehicle Commission’s “initial denial of plaintiff’s request, its initial denial of fellow atheist Silverman’s request, and its continued classification of the ‘8THEIST’ license plate as offensive on its website,” the unpublished May 12 ruling says Morgan properly alleged an injury-in-fact.
Wolfson did, however, toss Morgan’s claim that “regulation in question vests the commission with ‘unbridled discretion’ in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. This count failed because Morgan failed to distinguish it from the facial overbreadth allegation.
The commission did not return a request for comment.
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