Federal Appeals Court Rejects Vt. Ban on Religious Vanity Plates

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that faith-based lettering on vehicle license plates is allowed under the First Amendment, but emphasized that its ruling is limited to Vermont's ban on religious messages.

In ruling in favor of Shawn Byrne of West Rutland, Vt., the three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York reversed the decision of a federal judge in Burlington, Vt., who rejected Byrne's 2005 claim that the state discriminated against him when it rejected his application for a license plate that would read "JN36TN" – a reference to the popular Bible verse John 3:16.

The appeals court noted how Vermont allows its residents to request "vanity" plates that convey messages on a variety of topics, including statements of personal philosophy and taste, inspirational messages, and statements of affiliation with or affirmation of entities, causes, and people. The state does not, however, permit any "combination[] of letters or numbers that refer, in any language, to a ... religion" or "deity."

The judges also noted that the state's rules against religious expression on vanity plates had sometimes been unevenly applied.

For instance, it said, "GENESIS" can appear on a license plates as long as the driver insists it is a reference to a rock group rather than the Old Testament.

And it said Byrne had shown that his proposed license plate would have been approved if he had given the state a secular meaning, saying he chose "JN36TN" because his name is John, he is 36 years old and he was born in Tennessee.

"The state (Vermont) rejected Byrne's message only because it addressed ... areas of otherwise permissible expression from a religious perspective," wrote the appeals court. "This the state cannot do."

The Alliance Defense Fund, which filed suit on behalf of Byrne, hailed the appeals court's ruling, saying "[t]here's no reason whatsoever to single out a religious message for discrimination."

"Christians shouldn't be censored from expressing their beliefs while others are freely allowed to express theirs," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.

Notably, however, the 2nd Circuit emphasized that its ruling was limited to the state's ban on religious messages, an area where it said the Supreme Court has been "extensive and clear" in its guidance.

The appeals court said it need not and does not address bans on religious speech in forums limited to discussion of certain, designated topics, such as non-public forums in schools, which are allowed to deny the display of the Ten Commandments, for example.

"We simply find … that Vermont's ban on all religious messages in a forum it has otherwise broadly opened to comment on a wide variety of subjects, including personal philosophy, affiliation, and belief, serves not to restrict content but instead to discriminate against 'a specific premise, [] perspective, [and] standpoint,'" the court wrote, "and, as such, is impermissible."

"Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this Opinion," it concluded.

Friday's decision came nearly two years after the case, Byrne v. Rutledge, was argued before the court.

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