(BLACKCHRISTIANNEWS) A federal appeals court ruled Friday that faith-based lettering on vehicle license plates is allowed under the First Amendment, but emphasized that its ruling is limited to Vermont’s ban on religious messages.
In ruling in favor of Shawn Byrne of West Rutland, Vt., the three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reversed the decision of a federal judge in Burlington, Vt., who rejected Byrne’s 2005 claim that the state discriminated against him when it rejected his application for a license plate that would read “JN36TN” – a reference to the popular Bible verse John 3:16.
The appeals court noted how Vermont allows its residents to request “vanity” plates that convey messages on a variety of topics, including statements of personal philosophy and taste, inspirational messages, and statements of affiliation with or affirmation of entities, causes, and people. The state does not, however, permit any “combination of letters or numbers that refer, in any language, to a … religion” or “deity.”
The judges also noted that the state’s rules against religious expression on vanity plates had sometimes been unevenly applied.
For instance, it said, “GENESIS” can appear on a license plates as long as the driver insists it is a reference to a rock group rather than the Old Testament.
And it said Byrne had shown that his proposed license plate would have been approved if he had given the state a secular meaning, saying he chose “JN36TN” because his name is John, he is 36 years old and he was born in Tennessee.
“The state (Vermont) rejected Byrne’s message only because it addressed … areas of otherwise permissible expression from a religious perspective,” wrote the appeals court. “This the state cannot do.”
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