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With AU's help, N.J. woman's lawsuit over license plate advances.

A New Jersey woman who was denied a vanity license plate that reads "8THEIST" may proceed with her lawsuit, a federal court ruled recently.

In a suit filed by Americans United in April 2014 on behalf of Leesburg, N.J., resident Shannon Morgan, AU said the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission demeaned atheists, like Morgan, and favored religion over non-belief when it rejected the specialized plate.

The case began in November of 2013 when Morgan attempted to register for an "8THEIST" plate on the Motor Vehicle Commission's website, only to have it rejected because the phrase was deemed "objectionable." She then entered "BAPTIST" as a proposed plate in the commission website, and that plate was deemed permissible.

Morgan contacted the commission for assistance with registering her "8THEIST" plate and was told by an employee that it was unknown why her request had been denied. Other attempts made by Morgan to get approval for her plate were ignored, leading AU to file suit on her behalf. (See "License to Discriminate?" June 2014 Church & State.)

New Jersey officials attempted unsuccessfully to have the case dismissed, but U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson ruled May 12 that the legal matter may proceed.

"The Court finds that Plaintiff's factual allegations are sufficient to establish an injury-in-fact for the purposes of this motion to dismiss," declared Wolfson.

WWOR-TV, a Fox affiliate in Secaucus, reported recently that officials claim Morgan's rejected plate was due to a computer error rather than discrimination and that they later offered to let her have the "8THEIST" plate.

Americans United, however, is not satisfied because the Motor Vehicle Commision's rules still allow it to reject atheist plates. The guidelines remain too subjective when it comes to deciding what is "offensive" and what is not, AU said.

The state also has a documented pattern of rejecting atheist plates. In 2013, American Atheists President David Silverman, who lives in New Jersey, applied for a plate that said "ATHEIST," which the commission also initially found "offensive." Silverman later received an email from officials stating that his request "must be denied," so he contacted the commission and was told that his proposed plate was ruled "offensive." But when Silverman took his fight to the media, the controversy attracted some unwanted attention for the commission and officials there quickly changed their minds. The "ATHEIST" plate now graces Silverman's car.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan discussed the Motor Vehicle Commission's troubling pattern.

"[The commission is] disfavoring atheist plates and not fixing the system," she said. "Whatever Internet glitch there might be cannot be the explanation this time."

Khan added that Americans United seeks an "objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria for issuing a plate."

The case is Morgan v. Martinez.

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Title Annotation:PEOPLE & EVENTS; Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1U2NJ
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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