- (Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman)
A New Jersey woman is claiming her First Amendment rights were recently violated when her local DMV refused her request to have an "8THEIST" license plate, even though they reportedly accepted a request for a "BAPTIST" vanity plate.
Shannon Morgan of Cumberland County filed a federal lawsuit against the state's Motor Vehicle Commission on Thursday, alleging that the government entity is discriminating against her vanity plate choice because she is an atheist.
The plaintiff, who is being represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says in her lawsuit that when she visited the Motor Vehicle Commission's website last November to request "8THEIST" as her vanity license plate, her application was denied because the commission cited the term as objectionable. As a test, Morgan then reportedly entered in the word "BAPTIST" as a potential request, and the option was not deemed controversial by the website.
Morgan tried to contact the commission to inquire about her rejected vanity plate and was told by an employee that they were unaware as to why her request was not approved. Other attempts at communication reportedly failed, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed by Americans United argues that because the commission rejected "8THEIST" but accepted "BAPTIST," it is favoring religion over non-religion and demeaning atheist beliefs.
"The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It simply has no right to do that."
"This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem – atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens."
Morgan added to NJ.com that she believes she should be able to express her non-religious beliefs. "There is nothing offensive about being atheist … I should be able to express my sincerely held beliefs with a license plate just like everyone else."
According to the Associated Press, calls to the Motor Vehicle Commission were not immediately returned, and the government agency was closed for Good Friday.
New Jersey was embroiled in a similar First Amendment controversy in August 2013, when the commission denied the request of American Atheists President David Silverman's "ATHE1ST" vanity license plate. Although the commission originally deemed the license plate to be potentially offensive, Silverman appealed and the commission eventually reversed its decision, allowing him to have the atheist-themed vanity plate.