A federal appeals court today ruled that the state of New York violated the First Amendment when it rejected a pro-adoption group’s application to sponsor a “Choose Life” specialty license plate.
Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of The Children First Foundation in 2004 against state officials who denied its attempt to allow motorists to purchase Choose Life license plates. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles rejected CFF’s design in August 2002 — considering it “too political and controversial” to approve. The organization redesigned the plate, adding the group’s web site to it to better explain its purpose, and the DMV rejected it again.
Saying its free speech rights were denied, Children First filed suit with assistance from Alliance Defense Fund attorneys and, in January 2005, a federal judge ruled it had sufficiently argued its First Amendment rights would be violated.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s second attempt to ban the plates and allowed the lawsuit to move forward. The DMV eventually suspended review of specialty plates — a move that Elizabeth Rex, president of the Children First Foundation, says was done specifically to block the Choose Life plate.
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeff Shafer told LifeNews today that he’s glad the appeals court has now sided with the Choose Life plates.
“Pro-adoption organizations have the right to a specialty license plate on the same terms as any other organization, and the court’s decision affirms that,” he said. “The state is not authorized to censor The Children First Foundation for its life-affirming viewpoint, but it has gotten away with doing so for 10 years now since the application was first submitted.”
The court issued an order for the state to approve the plate application but placed the order on hold until any appeals are completed.
“It is undisputed that CFF complied with the requirements for entry into the program…,” the court wrote. “As this court has found, the sole basis for Defendants’ denial of CFF’s license plate application was viewpoint discrimination. Accordingly, the court finds that Defendants’ restriction was both discrimination based on viewpoint and unreasonable….”
In addition, the court found that “New York has run afoul of the First Amendment by giving the Commissioner unbridled discretion to engage in viewpoint discrimination.”
The New York DMV had rejected the foundation’s license plate design of a crayon drawing of a yellow sun behind the faces of two smiling children, claiming a significant segment of the population would consider the design “patently offensive” because it also included the words “Choose Life.”
ADF attorneys filed The Children First Foundation v. Martinez with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in August 2004. In March 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled the lawsuit could go forward after the district court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case. Malta attorney Jim Trainor, one of nearly 2,100 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is currently serving as local counsel.
ADF represented The Children First Foundation in a similar lawsuit in New Jersey. In that case, the state eventually agreed to approve the “Choose Life” plate after the foundation won reinstatement of its lawsuit at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.