published Friday, April 18th, 2014

New Jersey woman sues over '8THEIST' license plate

NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey woman who says she was denied a license plate referencing atheism filed suit this week, claiming her online application was rejected because it was deemed potentially offensive.

Shannon Morgan, of Maurice Township, said in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday that the Motor Vehicle Commission violated her First Amendment rights when its website rejected the plate reading "8THEIST." She said she received a message stating that her vanity plate request was ineligible as it "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency."

Morgan then filled out the online application using the phrase "BAPTIST" as a test, which the website accepted. Morgan claims in her lawsuit that she sent the agency a letter of complaint by registered mail and made several attempts to contact them by phone, all of which went unanswered.

Messages and emails left for the Motor Vehicle Commission by The Associated Press on Friday were not returned. A recorded message said the offices were closed in observance of Good Friday.

New Jersey previously, after a brief flap, approved a request from an atheist group's president for a license plate that read "ATH1EST," with the number one in place of the letter "i."

Ayesha N. Khan, the legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group representing Morgan, said the fact this has happened at least twice in New Jersey shows the problem has not been fixed.

The Motor Vehicle Commission is "disfavoring atheist plates and not fixing the system. Whatever Internet glitch there might be cannot be the explanation this time," Khan said, adding that they were seeking the enactment of new agency regulations that include "objective, viewpoint-neutral criteria for issuing a plate."

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