Courts Renew Debate Over 'Choose Life' License Plates

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - Last fall when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving "Choose Life" license plates, supporters of the customized tags figured the controversy had finally been settled.

But in the last few weeks, two court decisions have called the tags' constitutionality into question -- giving abortion supporters new hope in their fight against the state-sponsored license plates, which are available in six states and pending in a seventh.

After one failed attempt, Florida became the first state to offer a "Choose Life" license plate in 1999. A lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women's South Palm Beach chapter later that year held up distribution until August 2000.

The suit was thrown out in November 2001, but a Florida appellate court revived the case Dec. 19, finding it was inappropriately dismissed.

One week later, on Dec. 26, a federal judge sided with Planned Parenthood in its case against South Carolina's customized tags. The state plans to appeal, but in the meantime, no license plates will be distributed.

The recent court decisions, combined with about a dozen legislative initiatives that are planned this year, have given new life to the debate over the "Choose Life" license plates.

Russ Amerling, a spokesman for Choose Life Inc., a Florida-based group that started the campaign, said the court rulings were expected, especially since a challenge to Louisiana's license plates started out the same way before pro-life groups ultimately prevailed.

"It's nothing more than a scare tactic," Amerling said, noting that only three of the seven states have faced lawsuits. "Virtually every suit against the plate has been lost in the first round, but after that [the lawsuits] have always failed in the next round."

The Louisiana case nearly reached the Supreme Court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled in March that the abortion supporters did not have "standing" to sue.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the New Orleans chapter of the National Council for Jewish Women filed the lawsuit, claiming Louisiana had only endorsed the views of one side of the abortion debate.

In South Carolina, those same issues were debated in the federal lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood. Contrary to the 5th Circuit's ruling, though, U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman struck down the law. He said the "Choose Life" plates served a forum for pro-life beliefs, while abortion supporters lacked a comparable license plate supporting their viewpoint.

The state has vowed to appeal the trial court's decision to the 4th Circuit, which has given some abortion supporters hope that the issue might not be dead.

"The viewpoint discrimination argument used to declare the South Carolina law unconstitutional was the same reason the judge found the Louisiana law unconstitutional," said attorney Bill Rittenberg, who argued against the Louisiana plates. "No court has found that this statute is constitutional, they simply didn't give us the right to sue."

Rittenberg said the free-speech concerns are only one problem with the Louisiana law. Unlike other states that have adopted similar statues, Louisiana has a special provision that establishes an advisory council that recommends where the proceeds from the license plates are distributed.

The Louisiana tags cost a little more than $25, most of which is donated to agencies that help women with unplanned pregnancies or assist parents considering adoption. Abortion supporters were angered that the advisory council was made up of representatives from the American Family Association, Concerned Women for American and the Louisiana Family Forum.

Kathleen Benfield sits on the council as director of the American Family Association's New Orleans chapter. She said the free-speech concerns raised by abortion supporters carry little weight, since nothing prevents them from lobbying for their own pro-abortion license plate.

"Not once in any of these states has a pro-abortion group legitimately tried to get a pro-abortion license plate," Benfield said. "In order for their complaint to be valid, they have to try to get one. But I don't think they even want one."

Abortion supporters made at least one attempt to get a license plate. In 2001, when a Louisiana lawmaker introduced a bill to disband the advisory council, another legislator tried to amend the bill by adding a "Choose Choice" plate. That effort failed and the bill eventually died.

Barry Silver, an attorney for NOW's South Palm Beach chapter, said abortion supporters should not have to spend the time or money to create specialized license plates. Silver, who is leading the court fight in Florida, lauded the court's decision to reinstate his case.

Instead of a "Choose Life" slogan, Silver said the pro-life groups should pick a more neutral term, such as "Choose Adoption" if that is their objective.

"That slogan isn't just some benign little thing saying 'Choose Life.' It seems benign, but in actuality 'Choose Life' is the mantra for a movement that is very dangerous," Silver said. "That slogan has been used by a movement, which has committed arson, bombings, murder and death threats and a very large racketeering conspiracy in Florida."

After getting new life from Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal, Silver's case now heads back to a Tallahassee trial court, where he will argue that the license plates violate the First Amendment's prohibition of a state-sponsored religion.

More than 32,000 license plates have been sold for $20 each since Florida began selling them in August 2000.

New Hampshire state Rep. Daniel C. Itse (R-Fremont) said he hopes to bring the plates to his state this year. New Hampshire is one of about a dozen states considering the "Choose Life" plates.

Itse said his legislation is modeled after laws already adopted by seven other states, including Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi and Oklahoma, in addition to Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.

"This is something positive that can be done to discourage teenage parenthood and abortion," Itse said. "After the plate is paid for, 60 percent of it goes toward supporting unwed mothers during the term of their pregnancies, while the other 40 percent helps to defray adoption costs."

Itse expects the legislation to be debated in February or March, although Planned Parenthood of Northern New England has vowed to vigorously fight the bill.

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