Federal Court Orders N.Y. to Approve 'Choose Life' License Plates

New York residents may soon be able to purchase “Choose Life” specialty license plates for their vehicles due to a recent federal court decision on the matter.

Judges ruled on Tuesday that the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles violated the First Amendment when it rejected The Children First Foundation’s application to sponsor a “Choose Life” specialty license plate as part of a state program, ordering the state to approve the plate application.

The N.Y. DMV had denied the foundation’s plate design, displaying a crayon drawing of a yellow sun and two smiling children with the words “Choose Life” written across the bottom, stating that many would find the design “offensive.”

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“Pro-adoption organizations have the right to a specialty license plate on the same terms as any other organization, and the court’s decision affirms that,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeff Shafer said in a statement.

“The state is not authorized to censor The Children First Foundation for its life-affirming viewpoint, but it has gotten away with doing so for 10 years now since the application was first submitted.”

CFF, a nonprofit organization that promoted adoption as a choice for women with unwanted pregnancies or newborns, first applied for a custom plate through the DMV’s specialty plate program in 2001.

Like other states, New York offered a program that allowed vehicle owners to display specialty license plates, which bore a specific message or symbol.

But Raymond P. Martinez, the former commissioner of the N.Y. DMV, at the time denied the application, citing a denial of a similar plate in 1998. Commissioners had sole discretion on the design, marketing and issuance of special plates.

The previous commissioner in 1998 referred to a policy that refused to “promote or display politically sensitive messages,” on its license plates due to the potential for “road rage,” the lawsuit noted.

Thereafter, CFF’s legal counsel, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, contacted Martinez arguing that impermissible viewpoint discrimination occurred when he denied CFF their application.

In 2002, Deputy Commissioner and Counselor Jill A. Dunn noted that the CFF’s application was rejected “on the grounds that the requested custom plate series [was] inconsistent with [the DMV’s] regulations in that the message [was] patently offensive and could provoke outrage from members of the public.”

Revising their plate, CFF submitted in 2003 a new custom plate design that changed the tag line from “Choose Life” to “FUND-ADOPTION.ORG.” The revised plate also contained a smaller version of CFF’s corporate logo, with the crayon drawing of two small children and the “Choose Life” phrase underneath.

On March 31, 2004, Martinez wrote to the CFF director and president, Dr. Elizabeth Rex, informing her that the DMV was adhering to its earlier denial of CFF’s plate application.

After another round of updates to the plate, CFF proposed another design, but one week later was notified that Martinez had suspended the custom plate program.

ADF attorneys filed The Children First Foundation v. Martinez with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in August 2004 as a result.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in 2006 that the lawsuit could move forward after the district court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

The recent decision by the federal court on Nov. 8 finally put an end to the seven years of legal battles between CFF and the state.

“It is undisputed that CFF complied with the requirement for entry into the program,” the court wrote. “As this court has found, the sole basis for Defendants’ denial of CFF’s license plate application was viewpoint discrimination. Accordingly, the court finds that Defendants’ restriction was both discrimination based on viewpoint and unreasonable...”

“New York has run afoul of the First Amendment by giving the Commissioner unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination,” the court also added.

“Blocking the approval of the New York ‘Choose Life’ license plate since 2002 has put New York in the minority of states, given that a solid majority of 28 other states have already approved pro-adoption ‘Choose Life’ plates,” CFF wrote on its website.

The court issued an order for the state to approve CFF's plate application but placed the order on hold until any appeals are completed, according to ADF.

ADF previously represented CFF in a similar lawsuit in New Jersey. The foundation eventually won that case and the state agreed to approve the “Choose Life” plate, which is now available.

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