Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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Church State Issues

The solution to the problem of controversial license plates: Get rid of them

Dec 15, 2011

http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2011/12/the-solution-to-the-problem-of-controversial-license-plates-get-rid-of-them.html

The solution to the problem of controversial license plates: Get rid of them

December 13, 2011 | 5:16 pm

In Texas -- where else? -- the state Department of Motor Vehicles has approved a license plate known as the "Calvary Hill" plate. It depicts three crosses -- presumably those of Jesus and the two criminals crucified alongside him -- and carries the motto "One State Under God."

Predictably, church-state separationists don't like the plate. "It can lead to folks having their faith questioned or diminished by government bodies, and that's wrong," according to one critic.

I actually doubt that a Jew or a Muslim would feel marginalized looking at a Christian license plate while stuck in traffic, especially since it would be pretty clear that the sentiments were not the state's. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that a New Hampshire couple had a right to cover the slogan "Live Free or Die" on their license plate. That suggests that there might be some lurking 1st Amendment right to choose the message of your choice for a space the state has made available.

But why have specialized plates at all? They're distracting for police and witnesses to an accident or crime, not to mention drivers straining to see which college, high school or community organization is being boosted. If the states were to go to numbers-only plates, they would solve the distraction issue -- and moot the constitutional issues.

Of course, customized plates aren't the only distractions on the back of a car. There are all those bumper stickers advertising so-and-so junior high school or backing a political candidate. There is a temptation to tailgate to find out if the sticker reads "War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" or "If You Want My Gun, You'll Have to Pry It Out of My Cold, Dead Hands." So states might want to consider banning bumper stickers in the name of safety. They could call it the Shut Up and Drive Act.