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Published: Saturday, 6/30/2001

Ban on religious vanity plates challenged

BY JUDY TARJANYI
BLADE SENIOR WRITER

LUVJSUS?

Not on your license plate in Vermont, where state officials, in the interest of not offending anyone, have outlawed religious messages on vanity plates.

Nancy Zins, a pastor's wife and Christian school administrator from Rutland, found that out in a big way recently when her plan to surprise her husband, Rob, with a ROMANS5 plate was rejected by the Vermont department of motor vehicles. The ROMANS8 plate she wanted for herself was turned down as well.

Both would have referred to chapters in the biblical book of Romans that are special to the Zinses, who are challenging the state's regulations on vanity plates in Washington County Superior Court.

When Mrs. Zins filled out the application for the plates in October, she said she didn't notice a provision on the back saying that plates offensive or confusing to the general public would be denied.

Had she seen it, she said, she still would have been surprised to get a rejection letter. “To me, `offensive' is vulgarity. Never did I think that Romans 5 or Romans 8 would be offensive. No one would know what it would be but another Christian,” Mrs. Zins told The Blade.

The chapters contain teachings on the sacrificial death of Christ, sin, and the free gift of salavation, as well as statements of encouragement and confidence in God.

Bonnie Rutledge, administrator of the Vermont motor vehicles department, said the rules on vanity plates were revised recently to exclude religious content along with messages that are ethnic, vulgar, derogatory, profane, scatological, obscene, racial, or sexual and referring to eliminatory functions, drugs, narcotics, intoxicants, color, gender, sexual orientation, status, political affiliation, or government.

“In the past, we had a rule in place that was not as restrictive, but it left room for a lot of subjective thinking,” Mrs. Rutledge said. “ ... We decided through the assistance of counsel to make it restrictive and leave the subjective out.”

When Mrs. Zin's request was first turned down late last year, she said she called Mrs. Rutledge's office immediately, thinking there had been some misunderstanding.

“She was very nice, but she said, `Oh no, anything religious could be offensive.' I said, `That's ridiculous. You're crossing the line and getting into the area of free speech.' ... I said, `I really think this is taking away one of the rights I'm guaranteed as a U.S. citizen.'”

The Zins appealed the decision in January and, despite testimony from a Jew and a Muslim who said during a telephone hearing that they did not find ROMANS8 or ROMANS5 offensive, the state's decision was upheld in April.

In addition to the Zins, at least three other applicants, one of whom wanted IRISH on her plate, have challenged their license-plate rejections under the new state rules. So far, none has won, although the IRISH applicant is taking her case to the Vermont Supreme Court.

John Whitehead of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which is representing the Zins, believes the couple has a strong case because vanity license plates constitute a limited public forum.

Once government opens such a forum for messages, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that states cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, unless the message falls into a traditionally banned category such as obscenity.

“By creating these license plates with various messages, you can't go in and say, `Well, this one has a religious viewpoint, therefore it's not allowed,'” Mr. Whitehead said.

He said the Rutherford Institute successfully used a similar argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in defending a Christian Good News Club's right to meet in a New York public school. The high court ruled June 11 that the group should be allowed to hold its after-class Bible study in the school building saying government cannot discriminate against such a group because of its religious viewpoint.

The institute also is defending the Sons of Confederate Veterans in a fight to display the group's Confederate battle flag logo on state specialty license plates. A ruling in the organization's favor currently is being appealed.

When it comes to religious expression on license plates, both Ohio and Michigan allow such messages as long as they do not also contain sexual, profane, obscene, or drug-related references. For example, BEERGOD was recently turned down by Ohio officials because alcohol is considered a drug.

Plates with ROMANS5 and ROMANS8, as requested by the Zins in Vermont, are currently on the road in Ohio, said Julie Stebbins, spokesman for the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, as are PSALM1, PSALM2, PSALM3, PSLM271, ILVGOD, 666EVIL, DEVL666, SATAN, SATANS, JESUS, ALLAH, TORAH, RABBI, KORAN, and JOHN316, a reference to the Bible verse that neatly sums up the Christian message of salvation.

Religious plates on Michigan cars include ROMANS8, LUVJSUS, and JOHN316, said Elizabeth Boyd, spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state.

Religion is a popular theme for vanity plates nationwide. Among the religious plates listed on Leon Poon's Vanity Plates Web site, for example, are 1WTHGOD, GODSAVZ, GODZGOOD, PRAY, RU4GOD, YESLORD, YME GOD, and LUKE4 8, in which Jesus addresses Satan, saying, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”

Before Vermont changed its regulations, PS 23, an apparent reference to the 23rd psalm, made it onto a plate, Mrs. Zins said.

“We've probably got some plates out there that shouldn't be,” Mrs. Rutledge said, “but they were issued before the law became more restrictive.”

Although she would still like her vanity plates, Mrs. Zins said that's no longer the main issue.

“We're fighting this because we feel it's a bad law. And if we don't fight it when it's slipped in, someday we're going to wake up and find out that we don't have any freedoms left.”



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