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    'ATHEIST' plate raises a holy ruckus

    After getting complaints, the state decides a Florida man's license plate is objectionable and yanks it.

    [Photo by Jordan Fischer]
    In fighting the decision, Steven Miles says his First Amendment rights are being trampled on.

    By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 14, 2002

    Steven Miles has tooled around Gainesville for 16 years with a license plate that says "ATHEIST."

    To Miles, it is a form of self-expression, one he is happy to spend a few extra dollars every year to keep.

    But to the state of Florida, the tag is "obscene or objectionable," according to a letter Miles received last month from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. That puts the personalized plate on the department's blacklist, right up there with epithets, expletives and words describing certain body parts.

    The state must use "great caution" in screening plates, the letter said. Medical reference books are consulted. Slang dictionaries, too.

    "The plate must be canceled," it ordered. Officials want it mailed back.

    Miles, 55, is incensed. Giving up his tag is out of the question.

    "It's kind of disconcerting to know that the United States is based on freedom of expression, yet in actuality, it's quite restrictive," said Miles, an electrical engineer at the University of Florida.

    He also is vice president of Atheists of Florida.

    The review was prompted by a complaint signed by 10 people, said DMV spokesman Robert Sanchez.

    A supervisor in the Bureau of Titles and Registrations in Tallahassee sided with the protesters and decided to yank the plate. Department officials routinely refuse to issue blatantly offensive personalized tags. But pulling them off the street is rare.

    A few complaints about license plates trickle in every month and are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Sanchez said.

    The last kerfuffle happened in October over a Fort Myers personalized plate that depicted manatees and had the phrase, "EAT UMM." It was pulled.

    Miles thinks his First Amendment rights are being curtailed. He said he intends to fight and is in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union.

    "I was quite surprised and angry that one person would infringe on my rights," Miles said.

    He has a backer in Christos Tzanetakos, a Fort Pierce resident. About six years ago, Tzanetakos founded the Atheists of Florida, a civil liberties group that claims a 300-person mailing list. He recently wrote the department a stinging letter about its decision.

    The DMV appears to be succumbing to the "religious hysteria that prevails after Sept. 11," Tzanetakos said Wednesday.

    "For the department to claim or state that the word 'atheist' is offense or objectionable is something to be upset about," he said.

    Sanchez said a letter in support of Miles is prompting the DMV to take a second look at the issue. But if Miles is unsatisfied with the final decision, he has an alternative, Sanchez said.

    "There is a venue for people's free speech on automobiles and that's a few inches below the license plate," he said. "That's a bumper sticker."

    The controversy over the plate didn't start with the DMV. Others have reacted strongly to it since he screwed it to his Isuzu in 1986.

    "I had a wrench thrown at me in Jacksonville about 10 years ago. It went right over the hood," he said. Another time, "someone surreptitiously tore up my tag and threw it in the bushes. I put a frame and a plastic cover on it after that."

    People would sometimes slip into his yard and place notes beneath the plate or the windshield wipers. Some took issue with his stance; others cheered him on.

    But it never occurred to him to give up his tag.

    Lakeland resident Kenneth Vickery understands why. For 15 years, he has owned two personalized plates dear to his heart: "ALL4GOD" and "GOD4All."

    Vickery was concerned to learn of Miles' run-in with the DMV. "They may cancel mine, too."

    Miles should be allowed to display his message, he said, "if that's what they want to advertise."

    Vickery, a preacher at the United Methodist Temple in Lakeland, added this about Miles:

    "If I get a chance to meet the guy, we've got something to talk about."

    -- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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