Tennessee Abortion Advocates Upset Groups With Specialty Plate Lawsuit

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 23, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Tennessee Abortion Advocates Upset Groups With Specialty Plate Lawsuit

by Paul Nowak
LifeNews.com Staff Writer
February 23, 2004

Nashville, TN (LifeNews.com) — In an attempt to halt the sales of "Choose Life" specialty license plates, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit that would shut down the entire specialty plate program in Tennessee and cut off $11.5 million in funding to non-profit organizations statewide. Their actions have upset numerous nonprofit groups in the state whose plates, and the donations they generate, are possibly in jeopardy.

One of those organizations, the Tennessee Arts Commission, receives about $3.3 million annually from specialty plates, which accounts for three-quarters of its grant budget – money used to fund arts programs statewide.

"It would be devastating to the non-profit arts community in Tennessee," Rich Boyd, executive director of the Arts Commission told LifeNews.com. Boyd added that his organization appreciates the funding from the plates, as "no one makes anyone buy a plate," unlike state sales, income, or property taxes.

Other groups don’t appreciate the pro-abortion lawsuit either.

"It is a shame they chose to include the entire system when they have an issue with one plate," added Jim Hart, executive director of Friends of Great Smokey Mountains National Park, an organization that could lose as much as $600,000 in annual funding. "[The lawsuit] punishes several organizations that benefit from the program."

Currently, the legislature votes to approve specialty plates, of which there are now over 100. The ACLU lawsuit contends that legislators denied pro-abortion groups their free-speech rights by not granting them a plate similar to the "Choose Life" plate.

Legislation proposed by Rep. Jamie Hagood (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) would remove the legislature from the process, granting a plate to any organization that could meet minimum requirements and gather signatures of 1,000 people who pledge to purchase the new plates at $35 each. The bill is modeled after similar laws in Maryland and Virginia, which have been upheld by the courts as constitutional.

Hedy Weinberg, head of the ACLU in Tennessee, says she was encouraged by Rep. Hagood’s bill as "a really good first step," she did not say that passage of the bill would prevent the ACLU from asking U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell of Nashville to strike down the entire system.

When the Arizona Life Coalition filed a lawsuit stating that their free-speech rights had been violated by the state’s refusal to grant them a "Choose Life" plate, the Arizona Attorney General recommended dismissal of the suit as there is no guarantee of a right to freedom of speech on a license plate.

A lawsuit similar to that of the ACLU in Tennessee was considered by pro-abortion advocates in Louisiana, after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Louisiana "Choose Life" plates did not discriminate against pro-abortion groups.

Simon Heller, a lawyer with the pro-abortion Center for Reproductive Rights based in New York, said the plates shouldn’t be issued or the whole plate system should be changed. "Either broaden the forum or close the forum down,” Heller said.

Russ Amerling, who led the fight to pass the first Choose Life plate issued in Florida told LifeNews.com that if the entire plate system was to be eliminated, abortion advocates will have alienated a large percentage of Louisiana residents who also have other plates on their vehicles.

Ten states currently have plates on residents’ cars: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, and Louisiana, and Montana.

Tennessee and South Carolina have approved "Choose Life" plates, but have not yet made them available to motorists.

According to Amerling, the plates have generated approximately 2.3 million dollars nationwide to abortion alternatives, such as adoption and crisis pregnancy centers. Florida’s "Choose Life" plates have generated 2 million of that revenue, and according to the FL DMV, the "Choose Life" plates were the #9 top selling specialty plates among 89 in that state in the past 12 months.

Related web sites:
Choose Life, Inc. – https://www.choose-life.org