A woman filed a federal lawsuit alleging that her First Amendment rights were violated when she was denied a license plate that would proclaim her atheist views in New Jersey, though a plate reading “BAPTIST” was approved.
According to the suit, Shannon Morgan of Leesberg, N.J., said she tried to register online with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission for a vanity license plate reading “8THEIST,” but was told that the “requested plate text is considered objectionable.”
Morgan then tested the system to see if she could register a license plate that read “BAPTIST” and found that it was permitted and she could order the license plate if she wished.
When Morgan attempted to follow up in person with the Motor Vehicle Commission about why her request was denied, she said she was never given a clear answer.
The suit alleges that by denying Morgan’s request, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission is infringing on her First Amendment rights.
The suit also alleges that another resident, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was unable to get a vanity license plate reading “ATHE1ST” until local media started to report the story.
Morgan is being helped and represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog group.
“The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s actions are mean-spirited and derogatory,” as well as “unconstitutional,” Americans United said in a statement.
“The government should not be in the business of rejecting plates on the grounds of religion or non-religion,” Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan told ABC News. “That’s a classic speech violation.”
Khan said the Motor Vehicle Commission has “stonewalled” her client since the incident, refusing to engage with her in any way. They hope this lawsuit will help push the department to modify its regulations and Internet protocols that cause automatic rejections of plates it deems offensive.
Attempts to reach the MVC were not immediately successful.
According to the South Jersey Times, Sandy Grossman, a spokeswoman for the MVC, said that each license plate request was reviewed by commission officials.
“We review every request personally … and we review them for anything that’s offensive or objectionable,” Grossman told the South Jersey Times.
Grossman also told the Times atheist-themed license plates have been issued before.
“We have no objection and continue to issue plates with these types of configurations,” Grossman reportedly told the Times.
ABC News’ LIZ FIELDS contributed to this report.