Vermont Had No License to Censor Vanity Plates

Matthew Sharp

1/11/2011 10:47:10 AM - 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.

Yet more and more, men and women of different faiths are told that their opinions, which often represent the opinions of millions of Americans, are not welcome—that religion has no place in the marketplace of ideas. By silencing these important voices solely because of their religious viewpoint, we forfeit the wisdom contained in them and lose the richness of diversity that has made our nation a beacon of freedom for the entire world.

Now more than ever, as our nation debates difficult issues such as immigration and the role of government, religious viewpoints must be afforded equal participation. Sometimes these ideas will be persuasive; other times they will not. What should matter to the government is not whether the religious viewpoint ultimately influences the outcome of the debate; what matters is that the religious viewpoint is included.

The 2nd Circuit got it right: when the government opens up a place for its citizens to express their viewpoint, whether it be a license plate or a public park, “it cannot target for exclusion those who wish to comment…on the grounds that they wish to do so from a religious viewpoint.” We must never forget that if the government can censor a seven-letter license plate because of its religious message, it is only a few steps away from censoring a 700-page book or 7,000-word speech for the same reasons.