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Woman sues BMV over vanity plate denial

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The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles is again involved in a lawsuit involving the use of "God" on a license plate. A Cambridge City woman is suing because the BMV refused to re-issue her personalized license plate with the words "BE GODS."

Elizabeth Ferris filed the suit, Elizabeth Ferris v. Ronald Stiver, in his individual capacity and his official capacity as Commissioner of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, No. 1:08-cv-1551-SEB-DML, Nov. 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, seeking declaratory relief, injunctive relief, damages, costs, and attorneys fees relating to the denial of her personalized plate.

This afternoon, Ronald Stiver, commissioner of the BMV, released a statement that said Ferris would receive her personalized license plate. Stiver said Ferris should receive her plate because she completed the application process before a new review process of license plates took effect Nov. 6. The new process aims to be more consistent in approving or rejecting plates with pro- or anti-deity messages.

Ferris claims the BMV denied her application for a personalize license plate for 2009 that read "BE GODS," which she said meant "Belonging to God." Ferris had the same vanity plate for more than eight years. Her 2009 renewal application was denied because the plate was considered "inappropriate due to form or content."

Ferris requested a hearing with an administrative hearing officer, who released a recommended order that stated the First Amendment prohibited the BMV from refusing to issue a vanity plate because of a referenced deity and that the bureau's statutory authority to reject plates with offensive messages didn't authorize it to prohibit Ferris' plate solely because of the reference to religion. The BMV issued a final agency order denying her application for the plate Oct. 15, 2008.

The suit states that Indiana allows a license plate with "In God We Trust" on it, which isn't a personalized specialty plate. Stiver said in the release that the new process for evaluating personalized license plates with religious messages or words is different from the process surrounding the "In God We Trust" license plate, which was adopted by the General Assembly.

Ferris is suing for violations of the First Amendment's Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses, violation of the Equal Protection Clause, and violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. She wants a preliminary and permanent injunction to enjoin the BMV from infringing on her rights and require the bureau to issue her personalized plate. Ferris also wants the court to enter a declaratory judgment finding certain statutes regulating the BMV's authority on personalized license plates, and the BMV's policies and practice regarding personalized plates, unconstitutional both on their face and as applied as violations of Ferris' rights under the First and 14th Amendments.

Ferris is represented by three attorneys pro hac vice from the Alliance Defense Fund in Leawood, Kan., and locally by Michael J. Cork of Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn in Indianapolis.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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