Maybe vanity isn’t a sin after all.
The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission is now saying it made a “clerical error” after a prominent atheist said he was denied a vanity license plate that asserted his nonbelief.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, had applied to receive a license plate that read “Athe1st.” But on Monday, he said the MVC told him that the plate is objectionable because it is “offensive.” He was then told he could appeal the decision.
In a phone interview, Silverman told International Business Times that he believed the decision violates the whole idea of personalized license plates, which are often used to express drivers’ viewpoints and characteristics. He said simply referring to himself as an atheist is not an attack on anyone’s theistic beliefs.
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“It’s not like I’m saying, 'f--k your god,'” he said. “I’m saying I am an atheist. I’m describing myself.”
Following an inquiry by IBTimes on Wednesday, Elyse Coffey, an MVC spokeswoman, contacted the state’s Special Plates Unit, which apparently had a change of heart.
“The long and short of it is we made a clerical error,” Coffey said, adding that Silverman should be receiving a call sometime on Wednesday to let him know he can have the “Athe1st” plate.
The word “Atheist” without the 1 is already taken. Silverman said an old New Jersey plate with the word “Atheist” is currently hanging on the walls of American Atheists’ headquarters in Cranford, N.J.
Asked about the employee who told Silverman that the “Athe1st” plate was “offensive,” Coffey said the employee “misunderstood.” She then thanked IBTimes for bringing the matter to the agency's attention.
“It’s being fixed today,” she said.
Last year, the website governmentattic.org released a list of more than 1,000 terms that have been rejected by the MVC and banned from New Jersey plates. The list includes obvious profanity as well as slang terms such as “Weed” and potentially derogatory terms such as “Dyke.” The term “Atheist” is not on the list.
New Jersey’s motor vehicle regulation contains a provision that says personalized plates may not be “offensive to good taste.” Silverman, known for his vocal opposition to government endorsements of religion and occasional on-air sparring matches with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, said he believes the state would have no justification for banning a perfectly legitimate word that merely describes the absence of a belief in something.
“This is not something that we take lightly,” he said. “Atheist is an important word to use.”
Silverman said he is chalking the incident up to a low-level MVC employee who made a bad decision. He is happy to hear that the state is now calling it an error but noted that as of early Wednesday afternoon, he had not been contacted to say he was being offered the plate.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
Update: Silverman was contacted later in the afternoon by an MVC spokesperson, who confirmed that the plate has been approved.