Shannon Morgan was merely trying to personalize her license plate to “8THEIST” when officials in New Jersey rejected it because they deemed it “objectionable.” The incident occurred in November 2013, and it took Morgan, a Leesburg, N.J., resident, by surprise. At the time, she thought the rejection was a technical problem, but it wasn’t. New Jersey officials’ reasoning was that an “8THEIST” plate “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”
Curious, Morgan put “BAPTIST” into a state-run online system to see if a plate like that would win approval. It did.
Morgan turned to Americans United for help. Attempts to resolve the matter outside of court failed, and in April of 2014, AU filed a lawsuit in federal court on her behalf.
In its Morgan v. Martinez filing, Americans United alleged that the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions discriminated against atheists and that the state of New Jersey promoted religion over atheism – violating Morgan’s First Amendment right to express her non-belief.
After two years of litigation, Americans United on Aug. 12 announced a settlement in the lawsuit. Morgan will get her personalized plate.
“All Shannon Morgan ever wanted was for the state of New Jersey to stop disparaging her non-belief and cease treating her like a second-class citizen,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a media statement. “The lesson of this case is simple: The government should treat believers and non-believers equally.”
Claims by New Jersey officials that the plate was “objectionable” didn’t hold up. In fact, Morgan experimented with the commission’s online system and found that clearly offensive plates like “KIDPORN” and “RAPIST” passed at least the first layer of review.
“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 told Church & State in 2014. (See “License To Discriminate,” June 2014 Church & State.)
In an attempt to dismiss the case, attorneys for Raymond Martinez, the chief administrator of the commission, insisted that a “computer error” was behind the rejection and that Morgan no longer had to sue the commission since it agreed to let her have the plate after she took legal action.
But U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson denied the state’s request for dismissal in May of 2015, noting that Morgan’s fight could set a precedent that discourages the commission from rejecting related plates in the future.
Wolfson noted that the commission had previously denied an atheist-themed license plate to David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who lives in New Jersey. She pointed out that in light of this history and the initial rejection of her “8THEIST” plate, Morgan might face future problems.
Richard B. Katskee, Americans United’s legal director who served as Morgan’s legal counsel, told The New York Times August 16 that the case showed a clear bias against non-believers, since “BAPTIST” was quickly approved through Morgan’s experimentation.
“She rightly realized that it was a straight-up case of religious discrimination against atheists and nonbelievers,” Katskee said.
Morgan’s road to figuring out why her “8THEIST” plate was unacceptable to the state drove her in circles. She wrote an email to the state License Plate Commission and then called the commission’s Special Plate Unit, where a representative told her the reason was “unknown” and promised a call from a supervisor that never came.
She even sent the License Plate Commission’s Customer Advocacy Office a letter asking for answers as she continued insisting that she wanted the “8THEIST” plate. Morgan didn’t receive a response to that either.
When Morgan decided to take legal action against the state, it looked as though she might easily get what she wanted. The commission offered to give her that plate, but the agency declined to make any changes to its policies governing what is considered “offensive.”
For AU, that wasn’t good enough.
“The commission thus has a practice of denying personalized license plates that identify vehicle owners as atheists, thereby discriminating against atheist viewpoints and expressing a preference for theism over non-theism,” AU’s lawsuit argued, citing Silverman’s case.
Silverman was able to resolve his case outside of court. Initially, the commission told him it had rejected the plate because “ATHE1ST” was “offensive.” Silverman told The New York Times that he appealed the decision by writing a formal complaint, and the commission reversed its initial rejection just two days later.
In Morgan’s case, the process took longer because AU attorneys wanted to fix the commission’s discriminatory policies once and for all. That ended up taking two years, which surprised Morgan.
“I thought the ‘oversight’ would have been quickly corrected,” Morgan told Church & State in a recent interview. “Why they decided to fight this still confuses me to this day.”
A commission spokeswoman, Mairin Bellack, conceded that there was “an initial denial” but insisted, “as soon as it was brought to our attention it was rectified immediately.”
Morgan disputed that.
“It was not fixed immediately,” Morgan said. “As I stated in my complaint, I made several phone calls and sent a certified letter and never received a response. It was not ‘fixed’ until legal action was taken.”
Now that the two-year legal battle has concluded with the settlement, Morgan will finally get her “8THEIST” license plate 60 days after she pays the fee for it.
Although she won, taking legal action came with struggles for Morgan. She was on the ugly end of online harassment from people who don’t seem to care for her freethinking views.
“I received positive support within the secular community, but quite the opposite in the comments sections of most websites that posted the story,” she said.
A recurring theme among article comments on the lawsuit included threats to vandalize Morgan’s car.
“I was horrified to see all the ‘religious’ people outright threatening to key my car,” Morgan said. “I would never dream of damaging a car that had a religious personalized tag or bumper sticker. The idea of destroying someone’s property because they do not share my ideology is ludicrous.”
But this wasn’t just a win for Morgan and non-believers. Under the Morgan v. Martinez settlement, the state of New Jersey cannot refuse LGBTQ, feminist and other license plates that have secular or non-belief themes.
The settlement includes a list of possible personalized plates that can’t be rejected. Among them are : SECULAR, RATIONL, HUMANST, ATHEISM, GODLESS, HEATHEN, HERETIC, SKEPTIC, BLASFMR, REASON, EVOLVE, TRANS, LGBTR.TS, LGBTQ, PRIDE, QUEER, GAYPOWR, LGBTALY, FEMINISM, FEMINST, EQUALITY and 4WOMEN.
Morgan said she’s pleased that her case has grown this list.
“As the parent of a transgender child, I am thrilled that LGBTQ people and allies have the opportunity to show their love and support to the community,” Morgan said. “My boyfriend just applied for a new plate that reads ‘SECULAR,’ and as soon as my son gets a car – he just turned 17 – he will be getting a personalized plate as well.”
The settlement’s condition of not discriminating against the extended list and belief groups was important. Katskee and the AU legal team said it was deliberately included to prevent the “risk of having the same sort of discrimination.”
Americans United’s lawsuit caught the attention of media all over the world. Stories ran in the Associated Press, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Politico, CBS News, the American Bar Association Journal and others. Bloggers had a field day as well. The site Gothamist amusingly headlined its story: “Godless NJ Heathen Wins Right 2 Drive Sacrilegiously With 8THEIST License Plate.”
Overseas, the scrappy Daily Mail tabloid in the United Kingdom ran a story about the settlement, as did sites in Russia and Austria.
One commentator in England pointed out that problems like this remain in other states.
“It’s not just in New Jersey; laws on vanity plates vary considerably across the country,” The Guardian’s Mona Chalabi wrote in an Aug. 15 column. “For example, variations on the word ‘atheist’ are also not allowed in Arkansas but have been approved in Vermont.”
Chalabi’s commentary took note of governmentattic.com, which under the Freedom of Information Act, asked each state and the District of Columbia about which plates they banned.
The extensive list, which exposes how numerous states ban plates with themes that express non-belief, non-Christian religious references and other things some people might deem controversial, highlights the issue’s significance nationwide.
Morgan’s settlement victory could be a green light for Americans to stop tolerating discrimination on the basis of expression of non-belief in their states.
“I’m certainly relieved that it’s finally over with and very pleased with the results,” Morgan said. “However, I would have been happier had this never been an issue to begin with.”