Bennie Hart - IM GOD vanity plate lawsuit

Bennie Hart. (Courtesy of Freedom From Religion Foundation)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A federal court has ruled that a Kentucky man can, despite state government objections, use a personalized licence plate that reads, “IM GOD.”

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove wrote that while the commonwealth can limit what people can put on their vanity plates, the First Amendment also imposes limits on the state prohibition power.

“And in this case,” the judge wrote, “… the Commonwealth went too far.”

Retired postal worker Bennie L. Hart had in 2016 applied for a vanity plate with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. The vanity plate program allows drivers to request, for a fee, “a licence plate with personal letters or numbers significant to the applicant.”

The cabinet denied Hart’s request for the “IM GOD” plate based on its reference to religion and argued in court that vanity plates, because they are approved by the state, constitute government speech — not private speech — and therefore do not enjoy free speech protections.

The judge disagreed, writing that courts have ruled that such plates convey a “personalized message with intrinsic meaning … specific to the owner.” Even the state’s own statute establishing the program describes such plates as consisting of “personal letters or numbers significant to the applicant,” the judge wrote.

Further, the judge wrote, if the cabinet’s permission to use a vanity plate constituted a “stamp of approval” from the state, the government would be “babbling prodigiously” and “saying many unseemly things.”

“The same year Mr. Hart was denied a plate reading “IM GOD”, the Transportation Cabinet approved the contradictory plates “NOGAS”, “EATGAS”, “VEGAN”, and “BBQ4U” among many others,” the judge wrote. “Under the Transportation Cabinet’s logic, the Commonwealth is not only contradicting itself, but spewing nonsense.

"If the Court finds that vanity plates are government speech," the judge wrote, "then the Court would also be finding that Kentucky has officially endorsed the words “UDDER”, “BOOGR”, “JUICY”, “W8LOSS” and “FATA55”.

Distraction?

Judge Van Tatenhove found equally unconvincing the state’s argument that banning plates because of religious references was reasonable because it would support the government’s interest in promoting highway safety because “potentially controversial messages … could lead to confrontation or distraction on highways.”

While avoidance of controversy is a valid ground for restricting speech in a nonpublic forum, the judge wrote that the cabinet “has been so inconsistent in its application” of the safety concerns that it has “ceased to be ‘consistent with (Kentucky’s) legitimate government interest’ in any way.

“If the Transportation Cabinet genuinely wants to avoid controversy on Kentucky’s highways by preventing ‘promotion of any specific faith, religion, or anti-religion’ from appearing on vanity plates,” the judge wrote, “then it should have denied 'IM4GOD', 'ASKGOD', 'GR8GOD', 'LUVGOD'. But it did not.”

“To allow such plates as 'IM4GOD' and 'LUVGOD' but reject 'IM GOD' belies viewpoint neutrality,” the judge wrote.

Hart said in a news release that he was “thankful to finally have the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver.”

Hart was backed in his suit by the ACLU of Kentucky, of which he is a member, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the release that the organization was “delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers."

ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director Corey Shapiro said he expects the transportation cabinet to “respect the First Amendment moving forward.”

Naitore Djigbenou, executive director of the cabinet’s Office of Public Affairs, told WDRB News that the agency was reviewing the ruling to determine next steps, which could include an appeal.

She also said that since Hart’s application, the agency’s leadership has changed, and the new leaders have made adjustments to the vanity plate approval process “to assure more consistency.”

Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.