RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal appeals court has reversed its previous decision banning officials in North Carolina from issuing “Choose Life” license plates after the U.S. Supreme Court asked the court to revisit its ruling in light of a similar decision from the nation’s high court.
As previously reported, in February 2014, a three-judge panel with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the plates as being “at odds with the First Amendment.” U.S. District Court Judge James Carroll Fox had opined in December 2012 that the plates amounted to viewpoint discrimination because the state did not also issue plates favoring abortion.
The state first began offering “Choose Life” plates in 2011 after legislators approved a measure allowing the pro-life plates to be produced. Each plate is an extra $25, fifteen of which goes to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a non-profit organization that helps to fund pregnancy care centers throughout North Carolina.
“The choose life license plate has already raised over 12 million dollars in the states that allow them, thereby helping mothers and their families,” director Bobbie Meyer told reporters. “Here in North Carolina, there are 85 pregnancy care centers who last year saw over 46,000 women and children.”
According to WGHP-TV in High Point, six separate amendments have been presented to lawmakers in the state legislature in an effort to have produced plates that read either “Trust Women. Respect Choice” or just “Respect Choice.” The legislature struck down all six amendments as they failed to obtain a majority vote.
The ACLU of North Carolina then filed suit on behalf of residents who thought it unfair that the legislature would not also allow the issuance of customized pro-abortion plates.
“Issuing a ‘Choose Life’ specialty license plate while refusing to issue a pro-choice specialty plate constitutes blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment,” the Fourth Circuit then ruled months later. “Apparently, North Carolina wishes to celebrate only some interests of some of its citizens—namely, those with which it agrees. This it may not do.”
But last June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling, ordering the Fourth Circuit to reconsider its decision in light of the high court’s ruling earlier this month in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Supreme Court had ruled in Walker that state-issued license plates amount to government speech, and therefore, the state can reject messages that it does not endorse.
On Thursday, the Fourth Circuit reversed its previous decision 2-1, advising that the state may be free to issue the plates and reject others.
“We now conclude that specialty license plates issued under North Carolina’s program amount to government speech and that North Carolina is therefore free to reject license plate designs that convey messages with which it disagrees,” Chief Judge William Traxler wrote on behalf of the majority.
The ACLU says that it is disappointed in the decision, and opined that “[r]egardless of the court’s ruling, the General Assembly should finally do the right thing and allow citizens on both sides of this controversial issue to purchase specialty license plates supporting their views.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) had remarked earlier in the case that “[t]he First Amendment does not allow groups like the ACLU to suppress a state’s positive message just because the state does not also simultaneously approve a conflicting negative message.”