By Jesse Wood
Dec. 10, 2012. Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox ruled that it is unconstitutional for North Carolina to issue a pro-life specialty license plate without issuing a pro-choice license plate, too.
The plate in question bears the words “Choose Life,” and originates from House Bill 289 that passed through the N.C. General Assembly on June 18, 2011. Under the bill, if a plate receives 300 applications for a certain name, it may develop the plate.
The “Choose Life” license plate was among many new specialty license plates allowed. However during the 2011 legislative session, various legislators proposed six amendments to House Bill 289 to include another specialty plate with names such as “Respect Choice” or “Trust Women. Respect Choice.” Amid rancorous debate, all six proposals were rejected by the general assembly.
In his ruling, Fox wrote “The court also concludes … that the State’s offering a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”
In his conclusion, he ordered the defendants, the N.C. Department of Transportation, N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles and the N.C. State Highway Patrol, and its employees to cease issuing the “Choose Life” plate.
In September 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union of N.C. Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on behalf of state residents seeking a specialty license plate supporting pro-choice.
In November 2011, Fox granted a preliminary injunction that temporarily blocked production of the “Choose Life” plate, and last week’s ruling made that injunction permanent.
“This is a great victory for the free speech rights of all North Carolinians, regardless of their point of view on reproductive freedom,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCLF in a release. “The government cannot create an avenue of expression for one side of a contentious political issue while denying an equal opportunity to citizens with the opposite view.”
The plate would have cost $25 in addition to regular registration fees, and every $15 from each plate sold would have gone to Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a private organization that funds and supports crisis pregnancy centers in the state.
According to Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship’s website, “Choose Life” plates are already on the road or approved in 29 states and more than 763,000 plates have been sold or renewed, raising more than $16 million.
Attempts to contact Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship were futile. The phone number listed on the agency’s website didn’t work, but judging from posts written earlier in the year on the website, this ruling wasn’t expected.
“We have been advised that we can most probably expect favorable results in the end,” the website reads. “This is based on the experiences of other states having passed legislation approving the “Choose Life” license plate and ACLU/Planned Parenthood filing a lawsuit against the state law authorizing the Choose Life plate as they have done with North Carolina.”
The sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County, couldn’t be reached as of Monday afternoon. However he told The Associated Press this morning that, “As long as I am in the General Assembly, my goal will be to get that passed.”
He mentioned that he had a plan to keep the “Choose Life” plates, but declined to reveal any of those details.