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Religious Tolerance logo

Atheism and Atheists

Atheist license plates, in
Connecticut and Michigan
:

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2013 to 2016: Conflict in New Jersey:

During 2013-NOV, Shannon Morgan of Leesburg, NJ applied online to her state's Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) for a custom license plate for her car. She asked that it would say "8THEIST." It is not clear why she did not ask for an "ATHEIST" plate which would seem to indicate her message more clearly.

MVC application form 5

The Commission rejected her request. They told her that the plate was "objectionable," and:

"... may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency." 1

Their decision appears to conflict with the guarantees of freedom of religious thought and speech in the federal Constitution which are binding on all levels of government: federal, state, and municipal.

There is much disagreement over whether Atheism is a religion. Some have suggested the analogy that collecting postage stamps is a hobby, but that not collecting stamps isn't a hobby. Others note that Atheists believe specific thoughts concerning deity, and that when an Atheist or Agnostic is asked what their religion is, they often use these terms in reply. Also, public opinion polls generally show results for Atheism in addition to Christian, Muslim, Hinduism. etc. Atheism is thus regarded to be a religion by many people.

There are a multitude of religious beliefs within each religion that are considered "offensive to good taste and decency" by members of other religions, because they are viewed as blasphemy. For example:

  • The word "Trinity" simply implies a belief in the nature of God held by almost all Christians: that a single Godhead includes three persons: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But many Jews and Muslims, who believe in a single, undivided deity, find the term offensive.

  • The word "Goddess" simply affirms the existence of a female deity as recognized by Wiccans, most Neo-pagans, most polytheists, some feminists, and others. But to monotheists, only a single deity exists who is commonly referred to as "God," and who is generally considered to be male.

Yet, because the label on a personalized license plate is a form of speech, it is protected under the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution does not guarantee that nobody will ever be offended by another person's speech. It merely guarantees that every person has freedom of speech on religious and other matters, even if others find those beliefs blasphemous, evil, disturbing, or ridiculous.

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Having received a denial from the Motor Vehicle Commission, Ms. Morgan then applied for a different license plate: one which would say "BAPTIST." This was approved. Clearly, the Commission was judging which religious beliefs are legitimate and worthy of protection, and which are not. This would appear to be a violation of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution's implied wall of separation of religion and government -- often referred to as "separation of church and state." The phrase originated in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1801. The "wall" has been subsequently recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in multiple rulings.

Further discussions with the Commission were unsuccessful, so she approached the non-profit agency: Americans United for Separation of Church and State for support. Since 1947, Americans United have been educating:

"... Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom." 2

The agency attempted to resolve the matter with the Commission, and were also unsuccessful. The result was a lawsuit, Morgan v. Martinez, filed by Americans United during March or April, 2014 (sources differ) in the Trenton, N. J. Federal District Court. The defendant was Raymond Martinez, the Chair and Chief Administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC).

Americans United commented:

"After we filed the case, the commission offered to issue the license plate sought by Morgan and then moved to dismiss the case as moot, without changing its policies on acceptable license-plate messages. We filed an amended complaint, which the commission moved to dismiss. We filed an opposition to the commission's motion, and in May 2015 the trial court denied the commission's motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed. 5

Ms. Morgan noted that David Silverman, president of American Atheists and a resident of New Jersey, had applied in 2013 for a personalized New Jersey license plate that read 'ATHE1ST'" with a number '1' replacing the letter 'I'. He received an email in response from the commission saying that his application "must be denied" on the grounds that his application was either "Objectionable or Need for Further Clarification." When he followed up with a phone call, he was told that his requested plate wording was "offensive." He then wrote a letter to the Commission asking again for the ATHE1ST plate.

The lawsuit said that the Commission:

"... has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheist, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for theism over nontheism. ... Although the commission eventually relented and granted Mr. Silverman his requested license plate, it refuses to allow Ms. Morgan’s requested plate. ..."

The lawsuit states that the MVC is:

"... establishing and maintaining a custom and policy of denying and disfavoring license plates that send a message that is supportive of an atheist viewpoint.

These practices and actions had and continue to have the purpose and effect of coercing, advancing, and endorsing theistic religious belief, while disfavoring and disadvantaging the views of nontheists." 6

She also noted that

"After the Commission's denial of Mr. Silverman's application began to attract public attention and a reporter from the International Business Times questioned the Commission about it, the Commission relented and told the reporter, and later Mr. Silverman, that it would reverse its decision and issue the 'ATHE1ST' plate."

However, she notes that the Commission still has not amended or appealed its regulation that continues to grant it the right to prohibit plates that it regards as "offensive."

In her complaint, Ms. Morgan claimed that the MVC's denial rule is unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because it:

  • "is over broad;

  • grants government officials unbridled discretion to prohibit speech based on the speaker's viewpoint;

  • is vague; and

  • imposes a prior restraint on protected speech without ensuring that applicants will receive a decision o their requests for reconsideration within a short and specified time frame." 4

The Honorable Freda L. Wolfson, U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court, District of New Jersey, handled the case. She noted that the Federal District Court for the Western District of Michigan handled a very similar case in 2014. The plaintiff had applied for a vanity license plate "INF1DL." His request was rejected because the plate was considered "offensive to good taste and decency." The judge in that case ruled that the Michigan MVC must issue the plate. 4

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The District Court ruling:

Judge Wolfson issued her ruling on 2015-MAY-12. She determined that Ms. Morgan has standing to bring her complaint to court. She subsequently ordered the MVC to supply Ms. Morgan with her "8THEIST" license plate within 60 days after she pays for it. In addition, she barred the state from denying other custom plates in the future that involve themes such as non-belief, rights for the LGBT community, or feminism.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said:

"All Shannon Morgan ever wanted was for the state of New Jersey to stop disparaging her non-belief and cease treating her like a second-class citizen. The lesson of this case is simple: The government should treat believers and non-believers equally." 2

The case received minimal exposure among religious web sites on the Internet.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Liam Stack, "After Lawsuit, New Jersey Allows Driver to Get ‘8THEIST’ License Plate," The New York Times, 2016-AUG-16, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  2. "Americans United Settles Lawsuit Over New Jersey Atheist’s Custom License Plate. Church-State Watchdog Group Lauds End Of Discrimination Against Non-Believers," Press Release, Americans United, 2016-AUG-12, at: https://www.au.org/
  3. Ellen Hacker, "Morgan v. Martinez," Prezi Business Analytics at: https://prezi.com/
  4. Judge Freda L. Wolfson, "Morgan v. Martinez," 2015-MAY-12, at: https://docs.justia.com/
  5. "Morgan v. Martinez," Americans United, 2016-FEB-26, at: https://au.org/
  6. " '8THEIST' License Plate: Atheist Shannon Morgan Suing New Jersey Over Garden State's Vanity Plate Rejection," International Business Times, 2014-APR-18, at: http://www.ibtimes.com/
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Copyright © 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2016-AUG-21
Latest update: 2011-AUG-21
Compiler: B.A. Robinson

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