FRANKFORT, Ky. — A federal judge nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush has ruled in favor of a professing atheist who sued the Kentucky Department of Motor Vehicles for rejecting his application for a specialty license plate that reads “I’m God.”
“[T]he law as applied to Mr. Hart is neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral. To allow such plates as ‘IM4GOD’ and ‘LUVGOD’ but reject “IM GOD” belies viewpoint neutrality. Regardless, the court concludes that in this case, [the law] is an unreasonable and therefore impermissible restriction on Mr. Hart’s First Amendment rights,” wrote Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove.
As previously reported, Ben Hart had the license plate on his vehicle for 12 years when he lived in Ohio, but when Hart moved to Kentucky, his application was denied by the Transportation Cabinet of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) because it violated state regulations that ban “vulgar or obscene” messages.
Hart consequently contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (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 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 Buddha’ or ‘I’m Satan.’”
Shipp pointed to a 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.”
But Hart soon filed a lawsuit via FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), arguing that the DMV’s “refusal to issue the requested license plate constitutes an improper viewpoint and content-based restriction on his speech that neither serves a compelling govermnental interest nor is narrowly tailored to achieve any valid governmental interest.”
On Wednesday, Judge Van Tatenhove agreed with Hart, granting his motion for summary judgment. He noted that state law also prohibits personalized plates from having a “primary purpose [for] the promotion of any specific faith, religion, or anti-religion,” but such requests have been approved anyway.
“If the Transportation Cabinet genuinely wants to avoid controversy on Kentucky’s highways by preventing ‘promotion of any specific faith, religion, or anti-religion’ from appearing on vanity plates, then it should have denied ‘IM4GOD,’ ‘ASKGOD,’ ‘GR8GOD,’ ‘LUVGOD.’ But it did not,” he wrote.
“The Commonwealth does not allow drivers to say anything they want with a license plate message. That’s fine, but the First Amendment also imposes limits on the Commonwealth. And in this case, as explained below, the Commonwealth went
too far,” Van Tatenhove ruled. “That is why the Court will grant Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.”
FFRF cheered the outcome of the case, remarking in a statement, “As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart’s choice of a license plate was pure discrimination. We are delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers.”
Isaiah 14:13-14 outlines that Lucifer fell from Heaven as he had said in his heart, “I will ascend into Heaven. I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.”