FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Kentucky man who identifies as an atheist has filed a federal lawsuit against the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after his request for a specialty plate reading “I’m God” was denied.
“Nobody’s been able to prove I’m not [God] and I can’t prove I am,” Ben Hart told the Courier Journal this week, stating that the purpose of his plate was to assert that one’s view of God is no more right than others.
His lawsuit was filed on Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
“Hart has a right to select a personalized plate message that reflects his philosophical views, just as any other driver may select an individual message for their personalized plate,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a statement. “Just as others may select religious messages, Ben Hart, an atheist, has a right to comment on religion.”
As previously reported, Ben Hart was granted the license plate when he lived in Ohio, but when Hart moved to Kentucky, his application for the plate was denied because it violated state regulations that ban “vulgar or obscene” messages.
Hart consequently contacted FFRF, which sent a letter to DMV Commissioner Rodney Kuhl to request that the decision be overturned.
“We request that the Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing immediately approved the personalized plate,” it read. “The Division’s restriction of the message because of the viewpoint being expressed violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
“It should be plain to see that a state government may not restrict an ‘I’m God’ personalized plate,” the letter continued. “An individual has a protected free speech right to select that message, as they would select a religious message or any other message.”
J. Todd Shipp, an attorney with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, responded to FFRF’s correspondence by holding firm and stating that the plate is not in good taste and could pose a distraction to other drivers.
“Without question, the use of ‘I’m God’ is not in good taste and would create the potential of distraction to other drivers and possibly confrontations,” he wrote. “We would have taken the very same position had the individual requested plates that read ‘I’m Allah,’ ‘I’m Buddah’ or ‘I’m Satan.’”
Shipp pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlined that states have the right to reject certain plates because of its disagreement with the message it conveys.
“The Commonwealth of Kentucky considers specialized and personalized plates to be government speech,” he said. “Our plates carry the name of our state and any message on a license plate carries an indication of this state’s endorsement.”
Now, Hart is seeking for a federal court to declare the cited state regulation unconstitutional as applied to his plate, and to require that the DMV issue the plate as requested. He contends that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights have been infringed.
“Plaintiffs anticipated future personalized license plate is significant to Plaintiff because it would convey a philosophical and political message to others regarding Plaintiff’s view of religion generally, and about how faith is susceptible to individual interpretation specifically,” Hart’s lawsuit reads.
He told the Courier Journal this week that he began identifying as an atheist as a teenager in thinking about God’s punishment on the world in the days of Noah.
Scripture outlines that God brought the flood after Noah, called in 2 Peter 2:5 a “preacher of righteousness,” pleaded with all mankind to repent of their evil, but they refused.
“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” Genesis 6:5 reads, continuing in verse 11, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”