Apr 17, 2014

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says New Jersey officials can’t approve vanity license plates with religious language while denying a resident one that reads “8THEIST.”

In a lawsuit filed today with the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Americans United said the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission demeaned atheists and favored religion over non-belief when it rejected the specialized plate.

“The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “It simply has no right to do that.”

Added Lynn, “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.”

The lawsuit, Morgan v. Martinez, was brought on behalf of Leesburg, N.J., resident Shannon Morgan, an atheist. In November 2013, Morgan attempted to register for an “8THEIST” plate on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s website, only to have it rejected because it is “objectionable.” She then entered “BAPTIST” as a proposed plate in the commission website, and that plate was deemed permissible.

Morgan contacted the commission for assistance with registering her “8THEIST” plate and was told by an employee that it was unknown why her request had been denied. Other attempts made by Morgan to get approval for her plate were ignored.    

This is not the first time an atheist plate has been denied by the commission. In August 2013, American Atheists President David Silverman applied for a plate that said “ATHE1ST,” which commission found “offensive.”

“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 says in its lawsuit.

Americans United says the U.S. Constitution does not permit New Jersey to take a stand in favor of religion and against non-belief.

“The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions are mean-spirited and derogatory,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who will litigate the case with Madison Fellow Zachary A. Dietert. “They’re also unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse belief over non-belief.”