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Open road for Mo. 'Choose Life' plates after 8th Circuit clears detour

ADF attorneys win victory in decision that upholds ruling against state’s unconstitutional license plate approval process

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys secured a victory from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit over Missouri Department of Revenue officials Thursday, clearing the way for the creation of “Choose Life” specialty license plates.  In the lawsuit, ADF attorneys alleged the state violated Choose Life of Missouri’s free speech rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination when it refused to approve the specialty plate based on its objection to the pro-life message while allowing the messages of other organizations on other specialty plates.

“The state shouldn’t discriminate against pro-life organizations for their beliefs,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster, who argued before the 8th Circuit in October of last year.  “We are pleased with the 8th Circuit’s decision to recognize the unconstitutionality of the state’s approval process and look forward to the inclusion of Choose Life in Missouri’s specialty license plate program.”

ADF attorneys filed suit in federal court against Missouri Department of Revenue officials in June 2006 after two Missouri senators--both responsible for reviewing the specialty plate applications--objected to the viewpoint of the message on a license plate proposed by Choose Life of Missouri.  ADF attorneys argued that the state’s approval process, contained in Missouri Revised Statutes section 21.795(6), failed to provide sufficient decision-making criteria and therefore unconstitutionally allowed the approval committee too much of their own discretion in considering specialty plate applications.  The 8th Circuit agreed.

“Because section 21.795(6) allows the Joint Committee unbridled discretion to determine who may speak based on the viewpoint of the speaker, we find that section 21.795(6) allows for viewpoint discrimination and is therefore unconstitutional,” the court wrote.  “The Joint Committee can still review and approve or deny specialty plate applications based on the criteria provided [elsewhere in the law]; it simply cannot deny an application based on the viewpoint of the speaker....”

In January 2008, a federal court ruled in favor of Choose Life, determining that the state’s statute outlining the approval process for specialty plates was unconstitutional.  The state appealed the ruling to the 8th Circuit, which refused to stay the district court’s decision while the case was on appeal.  Last week, the state began to issue the plates, which Missouri motorists can order via the Internet.

An ADF ally, the National Legal Foundation, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of Choose Life.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith.  Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.