An atheist in New Jersey has won the right to sue after she was allegedly denied a request for a vanity license plate that read “8THEIST.”
According to Nj.com, this week U.S. District Court Freda Wolfson judge struck down an attempt by the state of New Jersey to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Shannon Morgan, a resident of Leesburg. Morgan, who identifies as atheist, claims she visited the state Motor Vehicle Commission’s (MVC) website in November 2013 and entered “8THEIST” as her preferred title for a vanity plate. Her submission was rebuffed, however, with the website telling her that the “requested plate is considered objectionable.” When Morgan tried “BAPTIST” as another option, she was reportedly allowed to proceed through the registration process.
Morgan eventually filed a lawsuit in April of last year, accusing the commission of violating her free speech. Officials, in turn, insisted her case was invalid because the rejection was the result of a “computer error,” not intentional discrimination, noting they eventually allowed her to have the license plate anyway. But Morgan’s lawyers say the issue is bigger than one license plate, and pointed out that the commission’s rules — specifically a policy that allows the MVC to decline plates they deem “offensive to good taste and decency” — are still in place, which they say grants the government “unbridled discretion to prohibit speech based on the speaker’s viewpoint.”
“We’re thrilled with the decision,” Jon Green, Morgan’s attorney, told NJ.com. “We’re saying its censorship of viewpoint and Judge Wolfson basically said you can’t do that.”
Morgan’s case comes on the heels of a similar incident that occurred in 2013, when American Atheists president and New Jersey resident David Silverman was rejected by the same commission when he attempted to procure a license plate reading “ATHE1ST.” Silverman’s request was also refused because his submission was deemed “objectionable,” although officials reversed their decision once news of the event became public. Commission staff blamed the dismissal on a “clerical error,” but Silverman said an MVC employee told him it was because his plate could be considered “offensive.”
State-level motor vehicle departments have become a regular site of activism for atheists, a growing group in the United States that can face obstacles because of their unbelief. Several atheists have fought for the right to wear pasta strainers on their heads in their driver’s license photos, for instance, a critique of religious headgear that is affiliated with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a “joke” religion popular among atheists. Although often tongue-in-cheek, atheist advocacy is paying real dividends for those who do not believe in God: secular Humanists are fighting hard to secure the nation’s first Humanist military chaplain, and the city of Madison, Wisconsin announced in April that it is now illegal for locals to discriminate against atheists and nonreligious people in employment, housing, and public accommodations.