By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
July 3, 2015
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Supreme Court has given new life to North Carolina’s ‘Choose Life’ specialty license plate.
The plate, which was approved by the North Carolina General Assembly (2011), was prohibited from being issued in a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina (2012), and was upheld by a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (2015). On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the lower court decision and ordered that the 4th Circuit reconsider the case in light of the High Court’s decision in a similar case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.
In the Walker case, SCOTUS ruled that Texas had the right to issue or not issue a license plate on the basis of whether it promoted a state interest because the license plates constituted government speech. More specifically, in Walker, Texas could decline to issue plates bearing a confederate flag because it contradicted the state’s public policy.
Within months of the North Carolina General Assembly’s approval of the ‘Choose Life’ specialty plate, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, arguing that the “pro-life plate” represented “viewpoint discrimination” by the state because it did not also offer a “pro-choice” plate.
The lower courts agreed with the ACLU and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper refused to appeal the 4th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court. That prompted N.C. Senate President Pro-Tempore, Phil Berger and Thom Tillis, then Speaker of the N.C. House, to intervene in the case and ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.
In Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys said the 4th Circuit’s ruling was contrary with other circuits that upheld the right of states to issue similar plates and that the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed as recently as 2009 that the government “has the right to speak for itself…and to select the views that it wants to express.”
Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina also explains that in the 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the High Court affirmed that the state has the right to “promote the State’s profound interest in potential life.”
ADF Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden said, “The First Amendment does not allow groups like the ACLU to suppress a state’s positive message just because the state does not also simultaneously approve a conflicting negative message. Citizens of North Carolina have the freedom to promote messages on their vehicles that their legislature has expressly adopted through license plate legislation.”
Lead counsel Scott Gaylord, and a law professor at Elon University School of law, said, “Third parties like the ACLU cannot sanitize the public square of views a state communicates simply because they do not like the messages. As the Supreme Court made clear in Walker, the attempt to censor a message like North Carolina’s ‘Choose Life’ message is inconsistent with both the purpose of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s government speech precedents.”
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said he was elated over the news that the 4th Circuit would have to rehear the case. He said he believes the case is strong now and the long journey for the ‘Choose Life’ plate is likely to come to a positive end.
“We should be thankful to God. We should be thankful to state Senator Phil Berger and former Speaker of the House and now US Senator, Thom Tillis, for intervening in this case,” said Dr. Creech. “Moreover, you’ll forgive me for tooting our own horn, but Berger and Tillis wouldn’t have had any standing to intervene in the case unless pro-life groups like the Christian Action League had not pushed for legislation authorizing them to do so. We knew that Attorney General Roy Cooper wasn’t likely to vigorously defend some of the laws with which he was politically at odds.”
If the 4th Circuit finds in favor of the ‘Choose Life’ plates, which is likely, then not only will a pro-life message be available on state license plates, but proceeds from the specialty plates will go to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a private organization that serves women that have pregnancies which present tough choices and challenges.