Judge rules NC 'Choose Life' plate unconstitutional


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.

"...the state's offering of a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment," wrote Fox in his ruling.

Click here to read the full ruling (.pdf)

Fox's decision came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and other plaintiffs.

North Carolina began offering the "Choose Life" plates last year. Drivers who buy them pay an extra $25. Fifteen dollars of that goes to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship - a private organization which funds crisis pregnancy centers.

Attempts in the Legislature to approve a "Respect Choice" plate have failed.

"This is a great victory for the free speech rights of all North Carolinians, regardless of their point of view on reproductive freedom," said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCLF in a statement. "We would have made the exact same argument if the situation was reversed, and the state planned on issuing a pro-choice plate while not offering one expressing the opposite point of view."

State attorneys are reviewing the order and haven't decided whether to appeal Fox's decision, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's office said Monday.

Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County sponsored the bill and said he'll encourage Attorney General Roy Cooper to appeal the decision.

"As long as I am in the General Assembly, my goal will be to get that passed," he said Monday.

Gillespie said he has a plan to allow North Carolina to keep the "Choose Life" plates.  A majority of lawmakers didn't accept his proposal last session, but Gillespie said he plans to try again in 2013. He declined to reveal details of his plan.

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 because they provided one group a forum to express its beliefs without giving the opposing view a similar forum. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

South Carolina legislators passed another law in 2006 to get around the ruling, allowing any nonprofit to apply directly for special license plates. Before producing the tags, the agency must first collect 400 prepaid orders or $4,000 from a private group. Under that law, South Carolina unveiled "Choose Life" plates in 2008, and Planned Parenthood did not file another legal challenge.

Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner contributed to this article.

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