Wednesday, November 26, 2008

God on License Plates

Indiana, like many other states, has numerous "specialty plates". There is a environmental plate, a children's education plate, a disabled veteran plate, a breast cancer awareness plate, and a host of others. Several years ago, Indiana introduced a new plate with "In God We Trust" emblazoned upon a waving American flag.

Personally, I have trouble with this plate because, to me, it certainly seems like a governmental endorsement of religion or, if not religion per se, at least monotheistic belief. Whether this license plate is appropriate is (or was...) a discussion for another day and is not the purpose of this post.

Shortly after the plate was first unveiled, it was challenged in court. It is important to recognize that the court challenge was not about whether the plate violated the First Amendment (or Indiana's equivalent); instead, the challenge had to do with whether Indiana could offer this plate without requiring motorists to pay the $15 administrative fee that it required when people chose other speciality plates.

(Two quick asides: Last year, when I went to get a new plate, the BMV clerk asked me if I wanted a "regular plate or a special plate". I told her that I wanted a regular plate. She then asked me which regular plate I wanted: the plain one or the In God We Trust plate. Second, based on the driving skills that I've seen exhibited, it is clear that a number of people with the In God We Trust plate certainly must trust God to keep them from killing other motorists, because their own driving skills sure aren't doing the job.)

Just recently, an Indiana appellate court ruled that the BMV did not have to collect the administrative fee for the In God We Trust plate. It is not clear whether that ruling will be appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

However, days after that ruling was issued, the question of God on license plates was in the courts yet again. This time, the issue was a woman who wanted to renew her personalized license plate that said "BE GODS". Apparently, in 2007, the BMV adopted a new policy for personalized plates that allows the BMV to prohibit plates that refer to drugs, alcohol, bodily functions and parts, political parties, violence, race, gender, religion or a deity. On the basis of that policy, the woman was denied her "BE GODS" plate.

Of course, the obvious question is how the BMV can support a plate that specifically references a deity as a specialty or regular plate but prohibit a plate that references a deity as a personalized plate. If anything, it would seem that those policies are exactly backward. After all, with the personalized plate, it is not the state endorsing the particular religious viewpoint; rather, the state is essentially providing a platform from which individuals may make their religious preferences known. Contrast that to the In God We Trust plate which is issued by the State of Indiana.

Not surprisingly, the BMV was slammed in the press for its decision and shortly thereafter changed its position (essentially, the woman's plate was grandfathered in; she had been using that as her plate for years, but had mistakenly missed the deadline to renew). But that position, too, was criticized.

So now, the BMV has changed its policy again. According to a report in The Indianapolis Star, the BMV's policy is now for a committee of BMV employees to examine each request for a personalized plate and decide whether the plate "carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency or would be misleading." I understand that policy to the extent that someone wants to use profanity or an obscenity on a plate (imagine a plate with "FUCK" or "EAT SHIT" or whatever else your dirty little mind can imagine). I can even understand the policy as it might related to veiled sexual references ("IMNXTC69" being the classic example) or suggestive of illegal behavior ("DO COKE"). But I'm troubled by the general standard of "offensive to good taste and decency". Whose taste and decency? Mine? Yours? Could a Hoosier choose a plate that was critical of the government or that indicated support for a controversial political position or minority viewpoint? And if the answer to that is no, then of course, one has to ask first, why, and then, who should be making that kind of determination? How have we gotten ourselves into a position where a group of state employees gets to determine whether a particular religious message "carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency"? Are we comfortable with that?

And here are my final questions: What would the BMV do if a Hoosier motorist wanted a personalized license plate that said "ALLAH" or "BUDDHA" or "KRISHNA"? And what would happen if a Hoosier motorist wanted a personalized license plate that said "NO GOD"?

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