NC appeals ruling on anti-abortion license plate

January 4, 2013 

— The state of North Carolina is appealing a federal judge’s ruling that it can’t offer anti-abortion license plates unless it also makes plates available for people who support abortion rights.

The state filed notice Friday that it’s appealing the decision last month by Judge James Fox, who said offering just the one license plate violates the First Amendment. The state’s notice included no comment beyond the appeal.

“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 American Civil Liberties Union of N.C. 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.”

In 2011, the General Assembly approved 80 specialty plates, including the “Choose Life” one. Each “Choose Life” plate cost $25, with $15 of that going to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an association of nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers.

The ACLU’s legal foundation then sued to block the anti-abortion plates, saying they violate the First Amendment because there was no specialty plate for supporters of abortion rights. The state didn’t manufacture the plates because of the court case and the 376 people who applied for them received refunds.

Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie of McDowell County, who sponsored the bill, said after Fox’s ruling that he wanted the state to appeal.

In 2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a S.C. 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, S.C. legislators passed another law allowing any nonprofit to apply directly for special license plates.

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