A woman's request for an personalized license plate spelling out '8THEIST' was recently denied by the New Jersey State Motor Vehicle Commission, on the grounds that some people might find the plate offensive or otherwise objectionable. Now the state of New Jersey may have to answer to for their action in federal court.
Shannon Morgan, of Maurice River Township NJ, argues that the MVD's alleged denial of issuing the "8THEIST" license plate violated her First Amendment rights. Morgan, who identifies herself as an atheist, believes that she is being unfairly disparaged by the state.
"There is nothing offensive about being atheist," Morgan said. "I should be able to express my sincerely held beliefs with a license plate just like everyone else."
The lawsuit was filed in federal court on Thursday.
Morgan is being represented by Ayesha N. Khan; legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State — a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
"The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the group, adding: "This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem — atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens."
Morgan originally went on the New Jersey MVD's website to order her personalized 8THEIST plate last November, according to the lawsuit. Allegedly, her request was denied by the website because it was deemed objectionable.
Although 8THEIST was allegedly denied, the lawsuit continues, Morgan entered "BAPTIST" as a potential license plate. It was not flagged as objectionable.
"She believes that the commission's decision to deny her a plate that reads '8THEIST' but to allow her one that reads 'BAPTIST' expresses a preference for theistic religious belief over non-theistic belief," the lawsuit states.
This isn't the first time the state of New Jersey has landed in hot water over the exact same issue. Last August, Cranford resident David Silverman, the president of an organization called American Atheists, attempted to get "ATHE1ST" as a license plate — with a numeral "1" instead of the letter "I". Silverman was denied his vanity plate after it was deemed offensive by a Motor Vehicle Commission clerk, only to have the decision reversed later that same month.
"The commission thus has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheists, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for theism over non-theism," Morgan's lawsuit states, citing Silverman's experience.
Morgan requests that she be allowed the "8THEIST" license plate, that the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission adopts specific, objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria for license plate denial, and that she be reimbursed for her legal fees.