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License plates have been used to proclaim environmental concern, support research into cancer and other diseases, and support championship sports teams. But now Rhode Island, the Ocean State, has waded into treacherous waters by allowing motorists to obtain a "Choose Life" license plate to support CareNet Pregnancy Center of RI, an anti-abortion group.
The House and Senate passed a hastily packaged bill in the waning hours of this year's General Assembly session, with half of the $40 surcharge for the plate to benefit an organization that describes itself as a "faith-based nonprofit organization that exists to serve women and men facing unplanned pregnancies."
The "Choose Life" license plate is a campaign started by a Florida group that now has license plates in 27 states, including Connecticut, where license holders must be a member of the beneficiary organization - in this case the Children First Foundation, a pro-life group based in New York. Although the Connecticut law has never been challenged in court, the plates were briefly rescinded after then Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (now a U.S. senator) expressed concerns about them in 2006.
The R.I. organization, which runs a clinic in Providence, is clearly a religious group. According to its mission statement, it is a "Christian outreach ministry" that believes the scriptures "teach that every person is uniquely created by God in His own image and is of inestimable value from the time of conception." With many states moving to curb access to abortion, the license plate message is also political.
If Rhode Island's legislative staff had done any homework on the issue, it would have found that the license plates have been challenged in other states.
In a nearly identical case in North Carolina in 2011, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that offering a "Choose Life" license plate was unconstitutional if the state did not offer the option to obtain a pro-choice license plate. In South Carolina, the "Choose Life" plate was declared unconstitutional, and a bill to establish a plate with "I Believe" and a cross and stained glass window also was struck down.
Although not all challenges to the license plates have been successful, at the very least Rhode Island has waded into a constitutional morass that could cost taxpayers a lot of money to defend, all to benefit a partisan group.
The founding fathers sought to separate religion from government because they understood the dangers of mixing the two. James Madison, in fighting against the establishment of government tithing to establish a Christian church, argued that any financial support of a religious group constituted establishment of religion. In a letter to Patrick Henry, he wrote that religious freedom "arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society."
In adopting the "Choose Life" license plate, government faces an untenable choice: support only one view, and face the resulting constitutional problems, or let all groups hawk their messages. Imagine, if you will, not only pro-choice and anti-abortion messages, but license plates endorsing political candidates or declaring positions on issues such as the death penalty, euthanasia, or same-sex marriage. We wonder, for example, if the state legislatures would be as eager to siphon funds for the Council on American-Islamic Relations as they have been to support Christian anti-abortion groups.
Besides its obvious constitutional problems, the "Choose Life" license plate is just another example of governments willing to do anything to make a buck. Connecticut has more than 50 special interest plates, benefiting cities, organizations, military and police groups, and fraternal groups. Among them are the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization; a labor union, the IUOE Local 478; and the Amistad, which recently returned to Connecticut amid questions about its use of taxpayer money.
Drivers who want to show their allegiance to a team, declare a political position or religious affiliation or raise money for a favored organization do not need a license plate to do so. It's time the states took a closer look at what messages they are allowing motorists to display and the groups with which they are sharing revenue.
At the very least, they need to avoid collecting revenue for organizations that have a political or religious affiliation.