Shannon Morgan wants to know why officials in New Jersey have a problem with her proposed license plate.

Morgan, a resident of Leesburg, attempted to register for a personalized plate reading “8THEIST” on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website in November 2013, only to have it rejected because it is “objectionable.”

This was puzzling given that previously the Commission had approved a similar plate.  More troubling still: When Morgan entered “BAPTIST” as a proposed plate in the commission website, that tag was deemed acceptable.

“After my plate was deemed ‘objectionable,’ I mentioned it on Facebook,” Morgan told Church & State. “At that point, I just figured it was a computer glitch and I would write a letter and my plate would arrive shortly.” 

It didn’t work out that way. A Motor Vehicle Commission employee told Morgan that it was unclear why her request had been denied. Morgan pressed on, but her attempts to get approval for the specialty plate were ignored.

So she turned to Americans United, which filed a lawsuit in federal court on her behalf April 17. In that filing, Morgan v. Martinez, AU alleged that the Commission’s actions were not only discriminatory against atheists, but suggested that the state of New Jersey endorsed religion over non-belief.

The controversy began with just a few keystrokes. Morgan, an atheist, decided she wanted to express her identity as a non-believer with a personalized license plate. She accessed the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website and entered “8THEIST” as her proposed text.

She was unable to proceed from there, however. Almost immediately a message popped up that read: “Requested plate text is considered objectionable.”

Morgan was confused by this development, so out of curiosity she typed in “BAPTIST” for a hypothetical license plate. That combination was immediately approved by the website. Morgan also entered proposed plates with terms that most people would consider offensive – including “KIDPORN,”  “RAPIST” and a few others not fit for print. None were flagged with a message calling them objectionable.

“I tried a bunch of other plates that I think most people would view as objectionable and the computer failed to flag any of these,” Morgan said.

Unhappy with this development, Morgan wrote an email in November to the state License Plate Commission, inquiring why “8THEIST” is not a permissible plate.

On November 25, she received a response, which instructed her to call the Commission’s Special Plate Unit. Morgan made the call and reached a representative in the unit, who told her that the reason her proposed plate had been denied was unknown. Morgan then asked to speak with someone higher up on the chain of command and was promised a call from a supervisor within 24 hours. That call never came.

Morgan wasn’t about to give up. In March 2014, she sent a letter to the License Plate Commission’s Customer Advocacy Office repeating her desire to have “8THEIST” on her license plate and again asking why her request had been denied. She has yet to receive a response. 

Having received a combination runaround and brush off, Morgan decided to pursue legal action. After Morgan shared her plate predicament on Facebook, Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett, a high school classmate of Morgan’s, saw the note and offered AU’s assistance. Morgan took her up on that offer, and Americans United came to her aid, challenging the plate denial in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.  

“The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions are mean-spirited and derogatory,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan in a press statement.  “They’re also unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse belief over non-belief.”

For its part, the Commission still has not explained what, exactly, is the matter with “8THEIST.”

“We review every request personally…and we review them for anything that’s offensive of objectionable,” Sandy Grossman, a spokes­­person for the Motor Vehicle Commission, told the South Jersey Times.

Grossman added that commission officials investigate and review the possible meanings of every vanity plate request and weed out those that are offensive. If researchers can’t figure out what a particular proposed plate means, they will ask the person making the request for more information.

 “We have no objection and continue to issue plates with these types of configurations,” Grossman said.

Interestingly, this is not the first time an atheist plate has been denied by the Commission. In August 2013, American Atheists President David Silverman, who lives in New Jersey, applied for a plate that said “ATHE1ST,” which the commission also initially found “offensive.” Silverman received an email from the Commission on August 26 that his request “must be denied,” so he called up the Commission and was told that his proposal was ruled “offensive.”

But when Silverman took his fight to the media, the controversy attracted some unwanted attention for the Commission and officials there quickly changed their minds. The “ATHE1ST” plate now graces Silverman’s car.

In light of that, Morgan and her AU attorneys can’t understand why there is resistance this time. 

“I was actually unaware of David Silverman’s difficulty in obtaining his plate until after I had tried to get mine,” Morgan said. “I now know that he did get his plate after a legal battle, so I am really shocked that they are letting this happen again.”

AU believes this is part of an ongoing pattern of discrimination toward non-believers at the Commission.

“The Commission thus has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheist, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for religion over atheism,” AU said in its lawsuit.

Morgan’s plate controversy has also received extensive media coverage, with stories appearing in CNN, Gawker, the New York Daily News, Philly.com and Raw Story, among others. Even some international media outlets picked up the story.

At press time, New Jersey officials had yet to respond, leaving AU and others still trying to figure out why Morgan’s license plate was deemed offensive in the first place.

“The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United in a media statement. “It simply has no right to do that. This license plate issue may seem like a small matter but it is indicative of a much larger problem – atheists are often treated by the government as second-class citizens.”