With Freedom From Religion Foundation and ACLU-KY Backing, Kentucky Man Wins Right To Have "IM GOD" License Plate
A federal court today cleared the way for a Kentucky man, backed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Kentucky, to obtain a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD,” finding the Transportation Cabinet’s denial of that plate violated the First Amendment.
In November 2016, Ben Hart filed a lawsuit after he was denied the personalized license plate. Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle officials, who have approved certain religious personalized plates, refused Hart’s request, initially calling his “IM GOD” license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” (While residing in Ohio, Hart had a similar license plate seen in the picture.)
The lawsuit, filed on Hart’s behalf by FFRF and ACLU of Kentucky, challenged the Transportation Cabinet’s denial of his plate based on statutory viewpoint restrictions that communicate religious, anti-religious or political messages.
“The Commonwealth [of Kentucky] went too far,” the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Court of Kentucky resoundingly ruled in favor of Hart.
“To allow such plates as ‘IM4GOD’ and ‘LUVGOD’ but reject ‘IM GOD’ belies viewpoint neutrality,” the court stated. “Regardless, the court concludes that in this case, § 186. 174(1) [the statute governing such license plates] is an unreasonable and therefore impermissible restriction on Mr. Hart’s First Amendment rights.”
Both constitutional watchdog groups celebrate the ruling.
“As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart’s choice of a license plate was pure discrimination,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers.”
The ACLU of Kentucky also welcomes the judgment.
“Today’s ruling makes clear that Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based on reasons that violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In light of the court’s ruling, we expect the Transportation Cabinet’s license plate review process will respect the First Amendment moving forward,” says ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director Corey Shapiro.
FFRF and ACLU of Kentucky member Ben Hart is a Postal Service retiree and married to his middle school sweetheart. Although raised in a religious family, he began to question religion as a child and now identifies as an atheist.
“I’m thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” says Hart. “There is nothing inappropriate about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”
ACLU of Kentucky Attorneys Corey Shapiro and Heather Gatnarek represent Hart alongside Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott and Colin McNamara of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Click on the PDF below to read the judge's ruling.