April 24, 2014

New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Still Finds Atheism Offensive

Location map of New Jersey, USA
New Jersey, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been asked by a few readers if I heard about the case of Shannon Morgan, the atheist in New Jersey who filed a complaint in court after her request for a vanity license place reading "8THEIST" was denied by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. I did read about this a few days after it hit the news; however, I did not have the time to write about it. I'll share my thoughts now, brief as they are.

According to CNN, the complaint indicates that the rationale provided by the Commission for denying the requested plate was that it "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency." Atheism is offensive to good taste and decency? That strikes me as an incredibly bigoted stance, one that should not be expected to influence decisions made by a government agency.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is assisting with the complaint.
"The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging nonbelief," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the group. "It simply has no right to do that."
The other interesting detail about this case is that Morgan had her request for a plate reading "BAPTIST" approved while the "8THEIST" plate was denied, prompting the complaint that the state is favoring theistic beliefs over atheistic ones. The notion that "8THEIST" would somehow be more offensive than "BAPTIST" does suggest the sort of favoritism that is legally prohibited.

CNN correctly notes that this case sounds familiar to us because we probably remember when American Atheists president, David Silverman, went through something similar over his New Jersey "ATHE1ST" plate. He too had to file a complaint before he received his plate a few days later. And so, it seems that the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission is slow to learn from experience.

This case raises issues of separation of church and state, bigotry, and Christian privilege. An atheist who wants a vanity plate expressing his or her atheist identity should not have to jump through any more hoops than a Christian wanting a vanity plate expressing his or her Christian identity. To decide otherwise seems discriminatory, and I imagine that Morgan will prevail.

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