For decades now, customized vanity license plates have been available to vehicle owners in all 50 states. The messages of most such plates are pretty mundane such as a person’s name or initials or a reference to a favorite sports team.
Of course, there are the religious ones, with messages such as “JZSSAVES” or “GODSLUV.”
But what if the message is anti-religious?
Ben Hart, who says he grew up religious but now identifies as an atheist, applied for Kentucky-issued vanity plates in 2016 that had a rather direct message: “IMGOD.” However, the commonwealth denied the request, saying that the phrase he wanted “did not meet the requirement” for vanity plates.
Kentucky law allows applicants to get vanity plates if they meet certain requirements such as falling within a set maximum number of characters or if they are not discriminatory in terms of gender, race, religion, or nationality.
Hart sued, arguing that the state’s refusal to grant him the vanity plate with its seemingly anti-religion message was unconstitutional and violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. Further, Hart and his legal team noted that Kentucky had awarded vanity plates that reference God to other applicants, including some pro-God ones such as “TRYGOD” or “GODLVS,” and at least one other seemingly anti-religious vanity plate, “NOGOD.”
It took years for his case to work its way through the courts, but in November 2019, a court finally agreed that the vanity plates Hart wanted were constitutionally-protected free speech and that he should be awarded his plates, which he eventually was.
Unfortunately for Hart, the case had racked up nearly $150,715 in court costs, and Hart tried to get that money back from the Commonwealth. This week, he succeeded, and a judge ordered the state to pay the amount to Hart.
The state’s attorneys had argued that the legal fees were “excessive.”
In a joint statement, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation both noted that the high cost Kentucky was forced to pay after trying to censor an applicant’s license plates should be a warning about the necessity for free speech.
“The Commonwealth does not allow drivers to say anything they want with a license plate message. That’s fine, but the First Amendment also imposes limits on the Commonwealth. And in this case, as explained below, the Commonwealth went too far,” the statement said.