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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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