"It's unfortunate that the state has chosen to prolong what is really a very clear-cut First Amendment issue," said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. "The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has consistently ruled that anytime the government creates an avenue for private speech, it cannot restrict that avenue to only one side of a contentious debate."
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox said the state cannot offer a plate with a viewpoint opposing abortion unless it provides drivers with the choice of picking a plate with the opposite opinion.
North Carolina has appealed Fox's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.
"This case is ultimately about the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for the free expression of ideas, and we look forward to making our arguments before the Court of Appeals," said Brook.
North Carolina began allowing drivers to sign up for the "Choose Life" plates last year, but did not issue any before the ACLU's lawsuit was filed. Drivers wanting them were to pay an extra $25, with $15 of that going to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship - a private organization which funds crisis pregnancy centers.
Attempts in the Legislature to approve a "Respect Choice" - or similar - plate have failed.
In 2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a South Carolina judge's ruling that the "Choose Life" plates approved by lawmakers in that state were unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Two years later, South Carolina legislators passed another law allowing any nonprofit to apply directly for special license plates.