By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — The Choose Life license plate: It’s about encouraging people to do the right thing; it’s about giving hope and help to hundreds facing unplanned pregnancies; it’s about free speech, a right guaranteed by our Constitution but denied by a handful of state legislators; and it’s about time the specialty plate became a reality in North Carolina.
That was the message some 200 pro-life supporters sent to lawmakers Tuesday morning via a rally in front of the Capitol that brought together resolute bill sponsors, grateful mothers, determined faith leaders and national promoters of the Choose Life plate movement.
Russ Amerling, publicity coordinator for Choose Life Inc., put it this way, “We’re pro-life and we vote. We’re pro-life and we won’t go away. Millions of people in North Carolina are standing with us on this issue.”
In fact, a Civitas Institute poll conducted this month among 600 likely Tar Heel voters showed 68 percent support allowing citizens the choice to display a Choose Life tag.
Despite popular demand and bipartisan support from dozens of co-sponsors in both chambers, legislation to create a Choose Life plate — introduced again and again over the past eight years — hasn’t been allowed even so much as a committee hearing, a fact that leaves perennial bill sponsor Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R-McDowell) both “incensed” and more determined than ever.
“I’m not going to quit. I feel like my First Amendment rights are being violated …” Gillespie told the crowd. “Why can’t we sue North Carolina like other states have had to do and force it to the courts and let the courts decide?”
If such a suit becomes necessary, the Alliance Defense Fund sent word to Choose Life North Carolina that it will gladly take the case.
“The state of North Carolina cannot treat the Choose Life message differently than it treats other messages that advocate for causes in a program that is open to all non-profit organizations. To do so is classic viewpoint discrimination, which is unquestionably unconstitutional,” Dorothy Yeung, an ADF-allied attorney from Durham, announced to the crowd. “… It would be unfortunate if the right to speak out on such a vital issue had to be fought and won in court again as it has in so many other places, but ADF is prepared to do so if necessary.”
Yeung said that ADF has been asked by North Carolina Choose Life to evaluate the group’s legal options in the event that the Legislature “continues to deny pro-life persons their right to free expression.”
“Lawmakers should realize that recent court rulings in other places such as Missouri and Arizona have opened the road for Choose Life plates,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Legislatures can’t say that one message is ‘too controversial’ or ‘too political’ and then approve other organizations’ slogans which also advocate a certain viewpoint.”
Those at the rally say a lawsuit will not be necessary if lawmakers simply give the Choose Life plates the same treatment as they have more than 130 other non-profit movements ranging from Save the Sea Turtles to Shag Dancing.
“I love turtles,” said Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret) ….. “but when does it become more important to have license plates for animals than it does for human beings? … Come on, let’s be fair about this.”
“The evidence is clear. Over 120 specialty plates are available in North Carolina; only one — the Choose Life plate — has yet to receive even a vote by a committee after seven years of waiting,” Bishop Peter J. Jugis of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte told those at the rally. “This is an injustice.”
Following Jesus’ example to shed the light of truth on any situation, Bishop Jugis said, “The truth is that at no cost to taxpayers this plate will help expectant mothers who seek help during their pregnancies.”
Already more than $12.3 million has been raised in the two dozen states where the plates are being sold. Proceeds from the North Carolina plate would go to Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship (CPCF), a network of 80-plus centers that offer, free of charge, a variety of services ranging from testing for pregnancy and STDs to ultrasounds, parenting classes, baby supplies and mentoring.
A volunteer counsellor and two former clients of pregnancy care centers shared their stories at the rally, testimonies of the hope and practical help offered to some 46,000 people each year.
Now the mother of an 8-year-old son and a member of the board of the Carolina Pregnancy Care Center in Greenville, Wagner Fields said she was “the girl next door” and “everyone’s favorite babysitter” until she found herself facing an unplanned pregnancy as a student at East Carolina University. She said she felt alone, hopeless and petrified when she went to the infirmary and was referred for an abortion. Only after a friend pressured her to go to the Pregnancy Care Center did she find acceptance and encouragement that her life was not over.
“They told me, ‘this is not the end. We can do this. It’s OK,'” Fields said. “My life has been changed and changed forever thanks to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Center.”
Gwen Gilbert was just 13 when she first became pregnant and got “tremendous support and encouragement” at her Pregnancy Care Center, support that continued even as she prepared for her second child less than two years later.
“I thought my life was over. At 15 I had two children,” Gilbert said. But with help from the center, she managed to keep her goals in sight and completed her GED, earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in criminal justice.
“People need to hear that there is life after unplanned pregnancies,” she said.
Introduced last session by Rep. Gillespie along with fellow House Republicans Tim Moore (Cleveland), Pat McElraft and Carolyn Justice (New Hanover), Choose Life License Plate Bill 168 was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations as well as the Transportation and Finance committees.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would set the plate fee at $25 with $10 to go to the Special Registration Plate Account and $15 to the CPCF, which would distribute proceeds to its agencies. Three hundred or more applications for a Choose Life plate would be required before the plate would be developed.
The House bill has 33 co-sponsors. Seventeen senators have joined sponsor Austin Allran (R-Catawba) to promote the companion bill, Senate Bill 210, which was referred to the Committee on Finance.
With the short Legislative session already under way, Choose Life supporters will want to act quickly.
Joined by Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Bishop Jugis urged the state’s 750,000 Catholics as well as other believers across North Carolina to write, call and visit their legislators now to push for the bill’s passage, reminding them of God’s words as spoken through Moses as the Israelites headed into the Promised Land. “I have set before you this day: life and good, death and evil. Choose life that you and your descendants may live.”