Sunday, May 18, 2008

Custom license plates and legislative voting

Custom license plates are a way for states to raise a little extra revenue. If a group of citizens of sufficient number designs a plate and promised to pay for them then the state will issue the plates. At least some states, such as Florida and Virginia, impose the additional requirement that the custom plates be approved by at least one of the two state legislative bodies. This legislative approval requirement for issuing custom plates is a problem.

Some of the custom plates will advertise or promote a religiously, politically, or maybe commercially partisan message. The moment the legislature puts the question of whether to manufacture a partisan license plate to a vote they have necessarily asserted for themselves the authority to decide which partisan viewpoints have government sponsorship and which do not. The legislature isn't voting to approve or disapprove custom license plates because they intend to always vote for "Praise Satan" license plates. There can be no enforceable limitation on the rationale for elected officials voting against any particular partisan plate and no judicial remedy for outcomes that favor some religious beliefs over others short of eliminating the use of the legislative voting itself as a method for approving religiously partisan plates. The legislative approval process, when applied to custom license plates which have religious messages, therefore intrinsically violates the government obligation to avoid assuming the power to favor majority and disfavor disliked minority religious viewpoints.

The custom license plate laws in states such as Florida and Virginia need to be revised to remove the legislature from the custom license plate approval process. State legislatures need to limit themselves to approving religiously neutral license plates in general. They should also restrict themselves to politically and commercially non-partisan license plates. People can put partisan messages on their vehicles using bumper and side window stickers, license plate frames, and the like. Custom license plates for an additional fee is workable provided that the state department of motor vehicles accepts all license plate designs that are properly requested by the required minimum number of citizens and that meet generally applicable, non-partisan standards for politeness. The Establishment Clause and Equal Protection Clauses of the constitution dictate that citizen designed custom license plates with atheist messages must be issued if similar license plates with theist messages are issued by the state.

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