Cars have long been a forum for the abortion debate through use of bumper stickers carrying “pro-life” or “pro-choice” messages.
Those debates are moving to courts and legislatures, however, as a growing number of states are adopting or considering “Choose Life” license plates to raise funds for and awareness of abortion alternative ministries, such as crisis pregnancy centers.
Opponents to the plates, a number of whom have filed lawsuits, claim they violate free-speech rights of pro-choice groups and unconstitutionally advance religion by distributing funds to religious organizations.
Some question whether it is appropriate for state governments to take sides in controversial political issues like abortion.
Gov. Phil Bredesen announced in June that he would let a “Choose Life” plate bill become law in Tennessee without his signature by leaving it on his desk.
“While I do not want to target this specific message with a veto, I am very concerned that we are venturing onto a slippery slope by starting to place political messages onto license plates, an official instrument of the state,” Bredesen said, according to the Nashville Tennessean.
Other states that have already approved “Choose Life” tags include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Carolina. At least eight other states are considering adopting the tags.
Many states issue specialty license tags to support special interests such as universities, the environment and social issues. New Hampshire’s “moose plate” promotes conservation. Virginians can show their support for the National Rifle Association on their plates. And, thousands of Americans sport their alma mater’s colors, logo and coat of arms.
Supporters of the “Choose Life” plates say they aren’t a political message but are aimed at promoting adoption.
“(The message) doesn’t touch on abortion in any way,” James Finnegan, who is spearheading a “Choose Life” effort in Illinois, told Stateline.org. “There’s nothing being used to overthrow Roe v. Wade or telling a woman she can’t have an abortion.”
Opponents like the National Organization for Women say the “Choose Life” movement purposely chose an anti-abortion message. “They could have passed a license plate that said ‘Adopt A Child’ and we wouldn’t be here [in court],” Florida NOW lawyer Barry Silver told the Associated Press.
Part of the opposition centers on religious groups’ involvement in “Choose Life” efforts.
“Can a state government fund a specific religious and political viewpoint?” asked TomPaine.com.
Louisiana’s “Choose Life” plates cost $61.50 over the regular license fee. Of that, $25 is donated to the Choose Life Advisory Council, which distributes money to non-profit organizations that provide adoption services, distribute ant-abortion information and counsel against abortion.
Three Christian organizations sit on the council—the American Family Association, Louisiana Family Forum and Concerned Women for America.
Others have suggested that having a “Choose Life” plate opens the door to adding license plates that promote pro-choice views. Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina have all denied such requests.
“The state is allowing certain types of speech and not allowing others,” Joe Cook, director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union, told Tom Paine.com. “That is viewpoint discrimination.”
Since the first “Choose Life” plate was approved in Florida in 2000, civil liberty and women’s groups have been battling the issue. The Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood are pursuing litigation in several states.
Russ Amerling, publicity coordinator for Choose-Life Inc., said what started in Florida has become a catalyst for other states.
Choose-Life Inc. describes itself as a secular non-profit organization funded through private donations and the sale of promotional products like neckties, T-shirts and license plate holders that bear the “Choose Life” logo.
What does Amerling think of those on the other side of the fence? They should apply for a plate of their own.
“(Opposing groups) have just as much right to have a plate as we do,” Amerling told Stateline.org, “as long as they go through the administrative process we did.”
Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com.