St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

ATHEIST tag wins reprieve

The brouhaha over the tag has provoked the agency to form a committee to review all potentially banned tags.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2002


The brouhaha over the tag has provoked the agency to form a committee to review all potentially banned tags.

The state said Thursday that a Gainesville man can keep his personalized license plate that says "ATHEIST."

Prompted by complaints, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles declared last month that the tag was "obscene or objectionable," and ordered Steven Miles to ship it back.

Miles called the American Civil Liberties Union instead.

After a story about the recall appeared in Thursday's St. Petersburg Times, a DMV spokesman said department higher-ups had reversed a supervisor's decision to cancel the tag.

The DMV will now form a committee to review all tags "that fall into a gray area" before they are yanked, said spokesman Robert Sanchez. He said the "ATHEIST" tag would have qualified for committee review.

"I'm elated," said Miles, 55, who received a call from a DMV official Thursday informing him that he could keep his tag. "Now I don't have to fight for what should be mine in the first place."

The ACLU was ready to step into the fray if Miles didn't get to keep the tag on his 1994 Toyota Camary. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said the state's decision to yank the license plate was "absurd," and revealed a lack of standards.

"Apparently the standard is whatever happens to pop into the head of DMV at any particular time," Simon said. He said the committee should write and publicize "rational guidelines" for determining what qualifies as objectionable.

The complaint that sparked the DMV's initial disapproval was a typed letter dated Feb. 11:

"We are all Florida residents and we saw the Florida tag "Atheist' on a vehicle the other day. We are writing to say we find this tag offensive and we do not think it should be on a vehicle."

It was signed by 12 people. Attempts to reach those with legible signatures were unsuccessful.

The DMV has canceled 57 tags in the last three years. Other than "ATHEIST," only one was theological in nature. It was "SONAGOD." Many of the others involved expletives or sex acts.

The state has issued many tags with religious references. Carol Sakolsky of New Port Richey used to have one on her Toyota Celica that said, "JESUS." She sold the car three years ago and the tag went with it.

Sakolsky thinks Miles should be able to keep his plate even though she doesn't agree with his viewpoint.

"If people can have "JESUS,' I guess he can have that, too," she said.

As news of the DMV's initial decision to cancel the tag spread Thursday across the Internet, Miles received an electronic show of support, much of it from atheists. Miles is an electrical engineer at the University of Florida and vice president of Atheists of Florida.

One supporter who called Miles was Rob Sherman, a resident of Buffalo Grove, Ill. He also has a license plate that says, "ATHEIST."

When Sherman applied for the tag in 1987, he was turned down by the Illinois DMV. Sherman said he had to appeal to the secretary of state, who backed him.

A self-described social activist, Sherman is planning a vacation to Florida next month and was hoping to hold a joint news conference with Miles.

"I don't know what we're going to have a press conference about now," Miles said with a laugh.

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists in Cranford, New Jersey, a First Amendment public policy group, called the DMV's decision "an absolute victory."

"This is about freedom of speech and freedom of conscience," she said.

Said Miles, contentedly: "Actually, we didn't have to fight very hard."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.