Local man fighting for JN36TN plate
By Alan J. Keays
Herald Staff | June 08,2005
BURLINGTON - A federal judge said Tuesday he isn't sure many people will understand the religious message from the vanity license plate a West Rutland man has filed a lawsuit to get for his 1966 Ford pickup.
Shawn Byrne filed his lawsuit against the state Department of Motor Vehicles in January after the state rejected his request for a vanity license plate.
The state contended, and Byrne's lawyers have since conceded that two of his requests on his vanity plate application, "JOHN316" and "JN316" did not adhere to a provision for vanity plates in Vermont that they not contain more than two numerals to avoid confusion with standard-issued license plates.
However, the state also rejected Byrne's third vanity license plate choice, "JN36TN," arguing that it contains a religious viewpoint. Byrne's attorneys argued the denial of the plate is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Federal Magistrate Judge Jerome J. Niedermeier said during a hearing in the case Tuesday that he wasn't sure people looking at such a vanity plate would immediately realize it was reference to a bible passage.
"It takes a little mental gymnastics to get to the point of what it refers to," Niedermeier said of the requested vanity plate, "JN36TN."
The judge listened to arguments Tuesday for about 45 minutes in federal court in Burlington from attorneys on both sides of the matter.
No rulings were made Tuesday.
"Obviously, it's a very intriguing and interesting issue," Niedermeier said. "We'll take it under advisement and issue a decision as soon as we can."
Byrne is represented by attorney Jeremy Tedesco of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization that states it defends religious liberty. Assistant Attorney General Harvey Golubock argued the case for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Tedesco asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction against the state, allowing Byrne to get his requested vanity plate.
"This is a straightforward case of viewpoint discrimination," Tedesco said in court.
The attorney said Byrne wants to put the vanity plate on his restored 1966 Ford pickup.
"He wants people to understand God has given him the gifts to do it," Tedesco said of Byrne's restoration effort.
"John 3:16" refers to a Bible scripture passage, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Tedesco added that while the state does own the license plates it issues, it doesn't own the message people pay to put on a vanity license plate.
"The message is associated with the person behind the wheel," the attorney said.
The state has asked that the motion for a preliminary injunction be denied, and requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.
"The state doesn't want to be in the business of endorsing a particular religion or deity," Golubock said.
The assistant attorney general said that Byrne has other options for expressing his viewpoint, including putting a bumper sticker on his vehicle.
"He could paint it on the side of the car," Guluback added. "The state wouldn't have a problem with that."
According to the lawsuit, when Byrne applied to the state DMV for a vanity license plate he was asked to list three choices on the application.
Byrne listed, "JOHN316," "JN316" and "JN36TN." The application also asked Byrne what his request represented and he wrote, "Bible passage."
A month after applying for the plate Byrne received notice from the state DMV stating that all three requests had been turned down.
Vermont regulations state that license plates are not allowed to have a combination of letters or numbers that refer to any language to race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation.
About 35,000 vanity plates are issued in Vermont. Payment of an annual fee of $30, in addition to the annual fee for registration, is required for vanity plates.
Byrne's attorneys listed in court filings a series of Vermont vanity plates seen on vehicles which appear to convey religious messages.
Those plates include: "HIREPWR," "PSALM," and "RI-CHUS," which presumably refer to 'higher power,' the books of Psalms in the Bible, and righteous, according to Tedesco.
"The mere fact that the state makes mistakes doesn't mean the state can't regulate license plates," Golubock said in court Tuesday.
Contact Alan J. Keays at email@example.com.