A federal judge ruled last week that the state of Kentucky violated the First Amendment by denying an atheist a license plate saying “IM GOD,” and has ordered the state to pay more than $150,000 in legal fees to the attorneys who represented the lawsuit.
Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union-Kentucky attorneys represented Kenton County resident Ben Hart, a Postal Service retiree, and an atheist, and they will be paid for the work they performed for the lawsuit.
“Groups such as ours have to put in a lot of work to ensure the constitutional rights of ordinary folks,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. “We truly appreciate that the court recognizes this.”
Last November, a federal judge allowed Hart to obtain the personalized license plate, ruling that the Transportation Cabinet’s denial of that plate violated the First Amendment. “To allow such plates as ‘IM4GOD’ AND ‘LUVGOD’ but reject ‘IMGOD’ belies viewpoint neutrality,” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove said.
According to FFRF, Hart was raised in a religious family but began questioning religion as a child and now identifies as an atheist.
Hart moved to Kentucky in February 2016, and in March, he received a letter from Kentucky’s Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing about the rejection of his application for the "IM GOD" plate. According to the letter, the “IM GOD” plate was considered in violation of laws against “vulgar or obscene” license plate messages.
Senior Counsel J. Todd Ship of the Kentucky's Office of Legal Services had said in a letter that “the use of ‘IM GOD’ is not in good taste and would create the potential of distraction to other drivers and possibly confrontations.”
FFRF and ACLU of Kentucky member Hart sued the secretary of the state’s Transportation Cabinet in November 2016 over being denied the vanity license plate.
“The Defendant’s acts, practices and policies constitute an impermissible infringement of Plaintiff's right to free speech, as-applied to Plaintiff's intended future speech in the form of a personalized license plate stating ‘IM GOD,’” read the lawsuit.
“[T]he threat of repeated enforcement by Defendant ... to deny Plaintiffs future application impermissibly discriminates against Plaintiffs speech on the basis of content and/or viewpoint, and has chilled and continues to chill Plaintiff's protected speech, thereby depriving him of rights secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
In an earlier statement, Hart said, “I simply want the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver… There is nothing ‘obscene or vulgar’ about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”