ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with Day to Day. The English write sonnets, the Japanese, haiku. Americans have their own form of abbreviated poetry - the personalized license plate. Up to seven letters or numbers to say almost anything you want. Those limits are being tested now in federal court by a Vermont man who tried to write a six-character ode to Jesus on his plate. NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH: Shawn Byrne is a used car dealer in West Rutland, Vermont, a born-again Christian, the proud owner of a vintage F100 Ford pickup truck. He even had an idea for a perfect license plate, JN36TN. For those of you not biblically inclined, JN36TN is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son." It's a favorite verse for evangelical Christians. You may have seen the guys in rainbow wigs at sporting events waving the big John 3:16 banners. But Byrne's lawyer, Jeremy Tedesco, says the license plate request was innocent.

Mr. JEREMY TEDESCO (Attorney, Alliance Defense Fund): There's no proselytizing here. It's straight up religious speech. It's a reference to the Bible. People are allowed to reference almost anything they want on a vanity plate, even literature. He just wants a reference to religious literature, to his favorite Bible verse, and the state's saying no.

SMITH: All states ban profanity and vulgarity on their license plates. But in polite Vermont, the law goes even further. Vermont bans all those subjects you aren't supposed to discuss at the dinner table.

Ms. EVE JACOBS-CARNAHAN (Assistant Attorney General, Vermont): Political affiliation, religion, race, illicit drugs, sexual references, a variety of things.

SMITH: Eve Jacobs-Carnahan is with the attorney general's office in Vermont. A license plate, she says, is not a bumper sticker. It's state property.

Ms. JACOBS-CARNAHAN: People would look at it and say, the state office let that go on a license plate?

SMITH: So how do clerks at the DMV make that decision without discriminating against particular points of view? That's the question that the two lawyers argued before the second circuit court of appeals yesterday. The lawyer for the 3:16 guy, Tedesco, read out to the court a list of controversial license plates that Vermont does allow.

Mr. TEDESCO: Tree-hugger, earth first, anarchy, ACLU1, pro-nuke, pro-life - these are all Vermont license plates. There's also a lot of religious plates like Noah ark and Buddha.

SMITH: The state of Vermont conceded that some of those slipped through the cracks. But it shows how hard it is to make a judgment call if something has a controversial meaning or not. If Shawn Byrne had a son named Jonathan born on March 16th, then John 3:16 might have made it through.

As the court of appeals considers the case, they'll have a lot of license plate case law to consider. Just about every state has had a similar fight. Stefan Lonce is the author of a forthcoming book about personalized plates called "License to Roam."

Mr. STEFAN LONCE (Author, "License to Roam: Vanity Plates and the GR8 Stories They Tell"): There was a God is good plate in Virginia. There's an Aryan1, which was in Missouri. There's another one from Vermont - S-H-T-H-P-N-S.

SMITH: Well, yeah, stuff does happen. But the owner of that last one said it could mean shout happiness. It's been such a hassle for bureaucrats that at least one state, South Dakota, considered banning personal license plates altogether. But the public said N-O W-A-Y. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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