Vt. Man Fights For Bible Verse Vanity Plate In Court

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The license plate in question

This is approximately how the personalized license plate Shawn Byrne wants would look. Courtesy hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy

The English write sonnets. The Japanese, haiku.

Americans have their own form of abbreviated poetry: the personalized license plate. Seven letters or numbers to say almost anything you want. But those limits are being tested in federal court by a Vermont man who tried to write a six-character ode to Jesus on his plate.

JN36TN was used car dealer Shawn Byrne's idea for a perfect license plate. The born-again Christian from West Rutland, Vt., looked forward to displaying it on his restored F-100 pickup truck.

John 3:16 is one of the most widely quoted Bible verses among evangelical Christians. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son." And some Christians try to sneak the reference into popular culture by printing it in hidden places on products and waving John 3:16 banners at sporting events. But Byrne's lawyer says the license plate wasn't meant to proselytize.

"It's straight-up religious speech," says Jeremy Tedesco, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents freedom of religion cases. "People are allowed to reference anything they want, even literature, on a vanity plate. Byrne just wants a reference to his favorite Bible verse, and the state is saying no."

All states ban profanity and vulgarity on their license plates, but in polite Vermont the law goes further. Vermont bans all those subjects you aren't supposed to discuss at the dinner table — political affiliation, religion, race, drugs, sexual references.

Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, with the attorney general's office in Vermont, says a license plate is not a bumper sticker that can say whatever you want. It's state property.

"People would look at it and say, 'A state office let that go on a state license plate?' " she says.

But how do clerks at the DMV make that decision without discriminating against particular points of view? That's the question the two lawyers argued before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawyer for Byrne pointed out that Vermont has allowed plenty of license plates with controversial or religious themes like HIREPWR, PSALM64, BUDDHA, NOAHARK, ACLU 1, ANARCHY, PROLF, PRONUKE and TREHUGR.

The state of Vermont concedes that some of those slipped though the cracks. But it shows how hard it is to make a judgment call about whether something contains a controversial message or not. If Byrne had a son named Jonathan born on March 16, then JN36TN might have made it through.

As the appeals court considers the case, it will have a lot of license-plate case law to consider. Every state that has vanity plates sooner or later runs into some controversial ones.

Stefan Lonce details them in a forthcoming book about the phenomenon called LCNS2ROM: Vanity License Plates and the GR8 Stories They Tell. He keeps a Web site of banned plates, including GODZGUD, ARYAN-1, XSTACY, SHTHPNS and MPEACHW.

Lonce says it's been such a hassle for bureaucrats that at least one state, South Dakota, considered banning personalized license plates altogether. But South Dakota drivers revolted with a resounding NOTHKU.



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