Matthew Sharp

It’s fascinating that in a world where it is easier than ever for an individual to publish a lengthy discourse about any topic imaginable, our communications seem to be getting shorter and shorter. We constrain ourselves to a 420-character status update on Facebook, a 160-character text message, and a mere 140-character Tweet. Yet even within these narrow constraints, we find ways to express a variety of meaningful, and often influential, ideas and viewpoints.

Fortunately, the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Byrne v. Rutledge, a lawsuit wrapped up Monday, assures us that no matter how short the message or the viewpoint it expresses, it is protected by the First Amendment.

Vermont, like many states, allows drivers to obtain a vanity license plate to express their viewpoints on a variety of subjects—from showing support for a sports team (“GOYANKS”) to words of inspiration for fellow motorists (“BEJOYFL”)—as long as the message does not exceed seven letters or numbers.

Shawn Byrne applied to the Vermont DMV for the tag “JN36TN,” a creative reference to the popular Bible verse, John 3:16. But Vermont denied his request, citing a state law prohibiting vanity plates that reference religion or deity. On appeal, after the Vermont District Court ruled against Byrne, the 2nd Circuit recognized that even a seven-letter long vanity license plate provides a place for the citizens of Vermont to express their opinions. Since other citizens were permitted to express a variety of messages on their vanity plates, Byrne could not be denied from expressing his message simply because it was religious.

The court’s decision is an important step in reversing the growing trend of censoring religious viewpoints in public debate. For hundreds of years, religious speeches and writings have provided an integral perspective on the major issues our nation has faced—from John Witherspoon’s sermons advocating for American independence, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s letters and speeches that looked to the early Christians’ examples of civil disobedience against unjust laws. The American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all under the law are not new innovations unique to our country; they are the byproduct of thousands of years of religious thought and experimentation by many of the greatest minds of humanity.


Matthew Sharp

Matt Sharp is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith