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Legal aspects

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Court cases:

The Center for Reproductive Rights describes their currently active cases before the courts. 1

Three important court cases are:

bullet Henderson v. Stalder in Louisiana. The Louisiana law which regulates the Choose Life plates "...stipulates that no money shall be distributed to organizations that counsel women to consider abortion, provide referrals to abortion clinics, provide abortions or advertise for abortion services. The statute also requires the establishment of a 'Choose Life Advisory Council' to design the license plates and decide which non-profit organizations will receive funds generated from sale of the plates. The Council must be comprised of a representative from each of the following pro-life organizations: The American Family Association; the Louisiana Family Forum, and the Concerned Women for America." Some of the key events in the law's legal challenge were:
bullet 2000-JUL-31: The case was filed by The Center for Reproductive Rights. Plaintiffs included Russell Henderson and Doreen Keeler, of Orleans Parish, Rabbi Robert H. Loewy and the Greater New Orleans Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. 2
bullet 2000-AUG-29: Federal Judge Stanwood Richardson Duval, Jr. of the Eastern District of Louisiana granted a preliminary injunction which blocked production and distribution of the plates. He wrote: "The right to an abortion is an extremely controversial issue and is the focus of a national debate. To provide through legislation for only one viewpoint to be expressed on such a polemical topic is very likely an unconstitutional restraint of free speech as it restricts the forum to only one view-that being the view of the State."
bullet 2001-JUN: Two days before the end of the Legislature session, Senator Diana Jaboie proposed an amendment to a "Choose Life" license plate bill that would create a "Choose Choice" license plate. Profits would be given to groups which offered abortion counseling and services. The legislature took no action on this amendment.
bullet 2002-MAR-29: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the injunction, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing.
bullet 2002-AUG-15: The Center asked the Fifth Circuit to delay dismissal of the injunction pending a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
bullet 2002-SEP-30: The Center petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the Louisiana law.
bullet 2002-DEC-2: The Supreme Court denied the Center's petition. This permitted the state to start issuing the license plates.
bullet 2003-JAN-8: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit took an unusual action by stating that the case may continue in the trial court if the plaintiffs amend their complaint to 'challenge the state's overall policy and practice of issuing specialty license plates'." The lead counsel on the case, Simon Heller, said: "This is an unexpected but welcome turn of events. Hopefully, we can put an end to the unconstitutional sale of anti-choice license plates. These plates are a form of government sponsored, anti-choice propaganda that must be stopped."
bullet 2003-MAR-6: Planned Parenthood, the National Council of Jewish Women, a rabbi, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a pro-choice woman filed a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana. They are asking that the court either throw out the state's entire specialty plate system, or require the legislature to authorize "Choose Choice" license plates. They claim that the "Choose Life" plates represent a symbolic union between the state and conservative Christians. Thus they violate the separation of church and state. 3 
bullet 2003-JUL-8: On 2003-JUL-8, U.S. District judge Stanwood Duval blocked the state from issuing all current specialty license plates, including the Choose Life tags. His ruling was based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, because the state provides anti-abortion plates but does not offer plates for opposing views. Judge Duval wrote: "If the state built a convention hall for speech and then only allowed people to speak with whom they agreed with their message, the state's actions would be in contravention of the First Amendment. There is no significant difference in the case before the court." According to Attorney General Richard Leyoub, the state will appeal the decision.  Steven Johnston, spokesman for Gov. Mike Foster, said: "It seems like a weird decision to take away the free speech rights of everybody else who has a specialty plate." William Rittenberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that specialty plates are not actually banned. It is just the mechanism by which the state authorizes them which has been declared unconstitutional. He said the state could follow the process that many other states have used, and issue specialty plates to be issued whenever a certain number of people request them. 9
bullet Planned Parenthood of South Carolina v. Rose.
bullet 2001-SEP: The legislature had passed a bill authorizing the sale of the plates in South Carolina, even though Planned Parenthood of South Carolina (PPSC) had informed the General Assembly that the bill would be found unconstitutional unless a corresponding "Pro Choice" plate was also offered to the public. Governor Jim Hodges signed the bill into law.
bullet 2001-SEP: PPSC and Dr. Renee Carter filed a lawsuit to have the law declared unconstitutional. 
bullet 2001-NOV-19: PPSC obtained a preliminary injunction on which prevented the law from being implemented. 1
bullet 2002-DEC-26: The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina declared that the law was unconstitutional. The judge called the law "a clear manifestation of viewpoint discrimination." The PPSC web site states: "This ruling will not prevent individuals from displaying political slogans on their cars with bumper stickers or license plate frames. It will, however, stop the appropriation of an official government function — the licensing of vehicles — for blatantly discriminatory purposes...."According to the court, the law constitutes unlawful viewpoint discrimination in a private speech forum by authorizing speech by individuals who wish to communicate the 'Choose Life' message, without authorizing similar speech by pro-choice car owners." 4 The state has promised to appeal the decision to the 4th circuit court. 5,6,7 Douglas R. Scott, president of Life Decisions International -- a pro-life agency -- referred to Planned Parenthood's criticism of the plates as "more of the same pathetic whining we've heard year after year." He suggested a compromise. He is reported as saying that his agency would not oppose a "Don't Choose Life" or a "Choose Death" license plate. 12
bullet 2005-JAN: The U.S. Supreme Court let the lower court ruling stand.
bullet Florida:
bullet 1999-JUN-10: Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill into law that authorized the state to start distribution of Choose Life license plates. This was the first state in the nation to do so.
bullet 1999: The South Palm Beach chapter of the National Organization for Women initiated a lawsuit to block distribution of the plates.
bullet 2000-AUG: The state started selling Choose Life plates.
bullet 2001-JAN: The Women's Emergency Network initiated a second lawsuit in federal court. It attacked the distribution of revenue from the Choose Life program to anti-abortion agencies. The Center for Reproductive Rights represented the plaintiffs. 11
bullet 2001-NOV: The courts dismissed the NOW lawsuit.
bullet 2002-JUL: A Florida district Court Judge ruled that the state of Florida could continue to distribute money collected from the sale of Choose Life plates.
bullet 2002-DEC-19: A Florida appellate court found that the NOW case had been inappropriately dismissed. The case was revived. 5 Apparently referring to a number of assassinations of abortion providers in the state, Barry Silver, an attorney representing NOW’s chapter said: "The big issue for me and my clients is that our country is faced with terrorism from abroad, but in Florida, we’ve seen homegrown terrorism specifically by religious fanatics against abortion clinics, Their slogan of choice is 'Choose Life.' The last thing we want to do is put the state’s imprimatur on a slogan that is used to sow violence and domestic terrorism." 10
bullet 2003-JUL: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Women's Emergency Network's appeal of their case.

This essay continues below.

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Other lawsuits:

bullet Ohio: On 2005-APR-27, the American Civil Liberties Union initiated a lawsuit in Cleveland federal court to stop sale of "Choose Life" license plates which are scheduled to be sold starting in May. Their objection is that the plates represent "viewpoint discrimination" which allows only one side to the abortion conflict to be promoted. John Farnan, spokesperson for Cleveland Right to Life said that the ACLU's lawsuit reflects "a hostility both to freedom of speech and religion." 13
bullet Arizona: For two years, the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles considered an application by the Arizona Life Coalition for "choose life" plates. The Department finally rejected their request. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit Arizona Life Coalition v. Stanton on behalf of the coalition during 2003-SEP. The state Attorney General's Office recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed, partly because they deny free speech to individuals and groups who have alternative beliefs. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled against the Coalition on 2005-SEP-27.

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Possible compromises:

The sale by most states of Choose Life license plates is of doubtful constitutionality for two reasons:

bullet It denies equivalent freedom of speech to persons and groups who hold alternative beliefs about abortion.
bullet In some cases, government money is given directly to religiously sponsored non-profit groups. In other cases, it is given to a religious organization who then distributes it to non-profit agencies. Both arrangements violate the principle of separation of church and state.

There are certain compromises that might be acceptable to the courts and to all sides in the abortion debate:

bullet A state could create two license plates: one pro-life and the other pro-choice.
bullet A state could create a single license plate that simply promoted adoption.
bullet A state could make any reasonable specialty license available to any group which is able to obtain sufficient support.

The Louisiana legislature turned down the first option. It is doubtful that any legislature that was willing to create a Choose Life license plate would tolerate a pro-choice plate. The Virginia legislature turned down the second option. They rejected a proposal by Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) for a "Support Adoption" plate. He was concerned about the legal costs to the state to battle the inevitable legal challenges if a single "Choose Life" plate were authorized. It is doubtful that the pro-choice and pro-life groups in any state could agree on a single pro-adoption plate. 8 Maryland adopted the third option in 1998. It allows non-profit groups with at least 25 members to apply for a specialty license plates.

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  1. " 'Choose Life' license plates," Center for Reproductive Rights, at:
  2. "Lawsuit Filed Against Louisiana Law Creating "Choose Life" License Plates," Center for Reproductive Rights, 2000-JUL-31, at:
  3. Susan Finch, "Lawsuit challenges all specialty car tags: Group hopes to derail 'Choose Life' plate," The Times-Picayune, 2003-MAR-7, at:
  4. Gloria Feldt, "Federal Court in South Carolina Rules 'Choose Life' License Plate Scheme Violates First Amendment: State Government Cannot Sponsor One-Sided Speech Forum,"  Planned Parenthood® 2002-DEC-30, at:
  5. "Courts Renew Debate Over 'Choose Life' License Plates,", a conservative news and information source, 2003-JAN-7, at:
  6. Greg Hoadley, "South Carolina 'Choose Life' License Plates Called Unconstitutional," Reclaiming America, 2003-JAN-3, at:
  7. "License plate backers not worried about ruling," Associated Press, 2003-JAN-3, at:
  8. Justin Bergman, "[Virginia] Senate passes ''Choose Life' license plate bill," Associated Press, 2003-FEB-18, at:
  9. Cain Burdeau, "Judge Blocks La. Specialty License Plates," Yahoo News, 2003-JUL-10, at: 
  10. "South Carolina Judge Rules Anti-Abortion License Plates Unconstitutional," Feminist Majority Foundation, 2003-JAN-6, at:
  11. "Federal Court to Hear Free Speech Challenge Against Florida 'Choose Life' License Plates," The Center for Reproductive Rights, 2001-JAN-30, at:
  12. "Planned Parenthood's Position on Plates Called 'Pathetic'," Life Decisions International, 2002-DEC-30, at:
  13. "ACLU Challenges Law Authorizing 'Choose Life' Plates. License Plate Sales Due To Begin Next Month," Associated Press, 2005-APR-27, at:
  14. "ADF attorneys vow to appeal ruling against 'Choose Life" license plates,' Alliance Defense Fund, 2005-SEP-27, at:

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Copyright © 2003 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAR-1
Latest update: 2005-SEP-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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