A New Jersey atheist is suing the Garden State over its refusal to grant her an “8THEIST” vanity license plate, contending the state is violating her First Amendment rights in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
Shannon Morgan, a self-described atheist, says in her suit, which references an International Business Times story about a similar case in New Jersey in 2013, that New Jersey “expresses a preference for theistic religious beliefs over non-theistic beliefs” because she was denied an “8THEIST” license plate but the Garden State would allow a “BAPTIST” vanity plate.
The lawsuit, which names New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Chairman Raymond Martinez as the defendant, contained a screenshot of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission website in which the text “8THEIST” is submitted as the desired vanity plate text. The screenshot says that the “requested plate text is considered objectionable.”
As a test, Morgan also entered “BAPTIST,” and found “that the website did not flag this proposal as ‘objectionable,’” according to her suit.
The Leesburg, N.J., resident said she wrote an email to ask the commission why “8THEIST” was rejected. A commission representative said he didn’t know why the “8THEIST” plate was deemed objectionable and that a supervisor would be in contact with her, but she never received a call.
Morgan said she wrote to the commissioner’s customer advocacy office on March 5 to ask why “8THEIST” was disallowed, but she never received a response.
“The commission thus continues to prohibit Ms. Morgan from obtaining the requested ‘8THEIST’ license plate on the grounds that the commission considers the plate ‘objectionable,’” her lawsuit states. The suit contended that Morgan’s atheist-related vanity plate request wasn’t the first such denial; the suit said a similar application, for an “ATHE1ST” license plate by American Atheists President David Silverman, was rejected on the same grounds in New Jersey in August 2013.
The suit noted that IBT reporter Christopher Zara contacted the commission about Silverman’s case and that the commission told Zara it would reverse its decision. Morgan claimed that despite the commission’s reversal on Silverman’s request, she still hasn’t been approved for her “8THEIST” plate.
“The commission thus has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheist, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for theism over nontheism,” the lawsuit says. “Although the commission eventually relented and granted Mr. Silverman his requested license plate, it refuses to allow Ms. Morgan’s requested plate.”
Morgan says her rights have been violated because the commission is “establishing and maintaining a custom and policy of denying and disfavoring license plates that send a message that is supportive of an atheist viewpoint.”
“These practices and actions had and continue to have the purpose and effect of coercing, advancing, and endorsing theistic religious belief, while disfavoring and disadvantaging the views of nontheists,” the suit goes on to say.
Morgan’s suit requests a permanent injunction requiring New Jersey to issue her an “8THEIST” plate and to require the commission to adopt a vanity plate policy “that requires any restriction of expression on personalized license plates to be based on subjective, objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria.”
Read the full lawsuit below: