BMV must show care with plates

Kokomo Tribune

Hoosier motorists have the opportunity to order a personalized license plate once again from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles as of April 1, The Associated Press reported.

Indiana’s vanity plate program was discontinued in 2013 after a Greenfield police officer and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state. The reason: The officer was denied a personalized plate that read “0INK.”

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the BMV’s authority to deny such vanity plates in November. The court, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, have said state-issued license plates are government speech, not constitutionally protected free speech.

But questions concerning Indiana’s vanity plate program have been around since at least 2008. That November, the BMV was named in a suit challenging a ban on religious references on personalized plates.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed the 2008 suit on behalf of a woman named Liz Ferris. After having a personalized plate reading “BE GODS” for nine years, Ferris re-applied for the plate that March only to have the application rejected as “inappropriate due to form or content.”

For the record, Ferris’ plate seemed innocuous. She said the plate was inspired by Christian musician Rich Mullins, who signed autographs with the phrase “Be God’s,” meaning “Belong to God.”

The timing of the lawsuit was ironic to say the least, coming on the same day the appeals court had ruled in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a man who bought one of the state’s environmental plates.

The man argued that if he had to pay a $15 administrative fee for his plate, the folks who bought “In God We Trust” plates should have to bear the same expense.

Such questions appear to have been answered by state and federal courts. BMV Commissioner Kent Abernathy said this week the new guidelines for the vanity plate program will be taken from state statute, allowing the state agency to deny any plate that “carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency.”

Now that the program is about to restart, the BMV must be careful in its interpretation of state statute. Eight years ago, we had the state distributing a license plate that said “In God We Trust,” and rejecting a personalized plate that said “BE GODS.”

State officials can’t have it both ways.