Lawsuit challenges 'Choose life' plate

Abortion-rights backers object

Staff WriterSeptember 9, 2011 

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to void a new law establishing a "Choose Life" license plate in North Carolina, saying it violates the First Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of four "pro-choice automobile owners" who contend that the license plate constitutes state-sponsored discrimination. The organization is seeking an injunction to block the plate's issuance as it nears the required 300 applications.

"The state is opening up a forum to one side of the argument," said Katherine Lewis Parker, the state's ACLU legal director. "When they do that, they are constitutionally obligated to open to the other side."

The law offers no alternative to express the opposite viewpoint. Six attempts to amend the legislation to include "Respect Choice" plates or "Trust Women. Respect Choice" plates failed, she said.

"This is a free speech case - not an abortion case," Parker said, suggesting her organization also would challenge the law if written the other way.

A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2004 struck a similar law in South Carolina. The court's jurisdiction includes North Carolina.

But state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, the bill's sponsor, is unfazed. He points to rulings in other states that endorse "Choose Life" plates.

"I don't think they will be successful," he said, noting that conservative legal groups were lining up to help defend the law.

The Marion Republican said the lawsuit is just an attempt by "an evil liberal organization to try to appease its liberal base."

The law - which establishes many other specialty license plates - easily passed both GOP-controlled legislative chambers. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue signed the law June 30.

The "Choose Life" plates would cost $25 and direct $15 of the proceeds to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a nonprofit pregnancy care ministry.

jfrank@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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