New Jersey Settles Lawsuit and Agrees to Let Driver Get “8THEIST” License Plate

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 14, 2016

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New Jersey Legal System ConceptThe State of New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission has settled a lawsuit with a woman whose request for a license plate that said “8THEIST” was rejected.

Shannon Morgan of Leesburg, New Jersey, applied for the personalized license plate “8THEIST” in November 2013 on the Commission’s website. Her application was rejected on the ground that the “Requested plate text is considered objectionable.” Morgan then attempted to request the personalized license plate “BAPTIST.” The Commission’s website permitted her to continue with the application process. 

According to her lawsuit, Morgan emailed the Commission to inquire about the rejection and ask for assistance obtaining the plate. The Commission responded to Morgan’s email, instructing her to call the Commission’s Special Plate Unit for assistance. The representative Morgan spoke with did not know why the “8THEIST” plate was considered objectionable and told her that she would receive a call from her supervisor. Morgan claims that she never received a return phone call. Morgan also claims that she sent a letter to the Commission’s Customer Advocacy Office via certified mail, but did not receive a response.

Pattern of Violating Free Speech Alleged

The lawsuit also claimed that the Commission had a pattern of denying personalized license plates that were variations on the word “atheist.” The lawsuit points to the time that David Silverman, president of American Atheists, applied for a personalized New Jersey license plate reading “ATHE1ST” and was denied. After an inquiry from the press, Elyse Coffey, a spokeswoman for the MVC, contacted the Special Plates Unit and the plate was eventually approved, attributing the denial to a clerical error.

Morgan filed a suit against Raymond Martinez, the Chair and Chief Administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. She alleged that the Commission’s denial of her request was a violation of her rights under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and her rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, and equal protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. She requested relief from the enforcement of N.J. Admin Code § 13:20-34.3(a)(35), which excludes the issuance of personalized license plates that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

Morgan was represented by Richard B. Katskee, the legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group in Washington. Katskee stated, “She rightly realized that it was a straight-up case of religious discrimination against atheists and nonbelievers.”

Lawsuit Settled

Spokeswoman for the commission, Mairin Bellack, stated that the rejection was an oversight that was rectified as soon as it was brought to their attention.

Under the terms of the settlement, Morgan may receive the plate that she requested once she reapplies and sends in the application fee of $50. The Commission will also pay her $75,000 in legal fees. The Commission is also required to issue personalized license plates to applicants who request plates that read: SECULAR, 8THE1ST, RATIONL. HUMANST, ATHEISM, GODLESS, HEATHEN, HERETIC, SKEPTIC, BLASFMR, REASON, EVOLVE, TRANS, LGBTRTS, LGBTQ, PRIDE, QUEER, GAYPOWR, LGBTALY, FEMINISM, FEMINST, EQUALITY, and 4WOMEN.

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