The Oklahoma Tax Commission (OTC) has rejected an Oklahoma City man’s request for a pro-LGBT license plate.“The gentleman who denied it said it was sexual in nature,” John Keefe told KWTV-9, a local news channel.
Keefe, who identifies as heterosexual, had requested a personalized plate that read “LGBTALY” to indicate that he is an ally of the LGBT community.“I thought that was a load of crap,” he said of the decision. “I thought that was very uneducated, very bigoted, very discriminatory against a population that has long faced an unfair, unethical discrimination.
He added that the plate is inspired by recent bills designed to restrict gay rights in the state of Oklahoma. He also appealed the OTC’s ruling and retained legal counsel to fight the issue.“I don’t think the state of Oklahoma is trying to engage in any specific act of oppression or anything like that,” his attorney, Charles Broadway, told the station. “I think when the tax commission hears evidence and information from persons who study and teach and research it is more of a social/political term, then they’ll change their minds.”
But the OTC hasn’t backed down.
KFOR-4, another local news channel, reports that when contacted for comment, an OTC spokesperson defended the decision and argued that the requested plate displayed a message with “a sexual connotation.” The commission has not released a more detailed explanation.
Keefe doesn’t intend to let the matter go, however, and told KWTV-9 that he’ll take his case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court if the OTC doesn’t reverse its decision. “We're going to fight and we're going to win,” he declared.
And he may be right.
The OTC’s standards state that it may reject “any special plate request deemed to be offensive to the general public.” That’s quite broadly written. It’s already difficult for states to defend standards that attempt to define and censor offensive content. But it’s particularly difficult to believe that Oklahoma has a realistic chance of convincing a court that Keefe’s plate would offend “the general public.”
The plate is certainly a political gesture, but the state permits other specialized political plates, including one that reads “In God We Trust.” Keefe’s plate contained no profanity, and no direct references to sexual behavior. It simply displayed support for gay rights.
Considering Oklahoma’s current political climate, it seems likely that the OTC has defined “the general public” as “fundamentalist Christians who object to gay rights.” That isn’t a valid reason to reject Keefe’s plate, and since the state does allow religious messages on plates, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that it has privileged certain sectarian viewpoints over Keefe’s secular message. And that’s a First Amendment problem.
Oklahoma isn’t the first state to reject a license plate on shaky constitutional grounds; Americans United recently sued the state of New Jersey for rejecting a license plate that read “8THEIST.” That case is ongoing.
It’s time for states like Oklahoma to stop using dubious “offense” standards to discriminate against minority groups—and their supporters. The OTC should reverse its decision and permit Keefe’s plate.