BMV tosses personalized license plate policy

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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  A federal lawsuit involving the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and how it handles personalized license plates may be settled in the next week, now that the state agency has thrown out the revised policy banning all religious or deity phrases.

BMV Commissioner Ron Stiver reversed a policy decision Nov. 25 that had taken effect Nov. 6 banning any requested personalized plate message carrying a religious or deity message. Now, an eight-person internal committee will review all requested messages the way the agency had operated for years.

Late last year, the agency had started reviewing about 230 internal policies and eventually decided to move away from the committee review. Instead, the agency would specifically ban anything that referred to drugs, alcohol, bodily functions or parts, political parties, violence, race, gender, religion, or a deity.

"From a legal perspective, we were concerned that if we accepted or approved anything perceived as pro-deity, we'd have to accept anything on the opposite end," BMV spokesman Dennis Rosebrough said. "If we rejected all references, we were on safe legal ground."

But that decision got a second look from the agency commissioner after scrutiny in the past month, resulting mostly from the Nov. 17 lawsuit filed by Elizabeth Ferris of Cambridge City. Ferris claimed her First Amendment rights to free speech were violated when the agency didn't allow her plate saying BE GODS, meaning "belong to God." Stiver allowed Ferris and three others to get plates a day after the suit was filed, and Rosebrough said the commissioner spent the next week more closely examining the policy through discussions with attorneys and public policy-makers here and outside Indiana.

"That new rule was well-intentioned and based on legitimate legal opinion, but at the end of the day he felt that we really ought to rely on common sense to guide us," Rosebrough said.

Alliance Defense Fund attorney Kevin Theriot, who isn't an attorney of record on this case but works on the suit with lead counsel Erik Stanley, said Nov. 26 that this move goes a long way to help resolve the case. Counsel from both sides have been discussing potential settlements, but an agreement hadn't been reached prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We have not made any final dispositions in this case, but we applaud the actions of the BMV and think this will help get everyone to a point where we can find a resolution," he said.

Those seeking personalized plates had until Oct. 31 to submit requests to receive plates in the spring, so the full impact of this policy decision will be on those wanting personalized plates for 2010, Rosebrough said. The BMV receives about 12,000 requests a year, and Rosebrough said motorists whose requests are rejected always have an option to appeal the agency's decisions.

"There really needs to be this vetting process from keeping some very not nice stuff off backs of people's cars," he said. "But this is a subjective process and there're always gray areas. That's why there's an appeal process."


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