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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2002
Abortion is a serious issue, but you would never know it by the legal challenge to Florida's "Choose Life" license plate. Some of the arguments against the plate come close to trivializing the abortion debate. While there are important battles to fight to protect abortion rights, this is not one of them. But try to tell that to the National Organization for Women and other plaintiffs who believe the bright yellow tag is an unconstitutional breach of church-state separation and -- now get this -- intimidating to people who support abortion rights. So far, they haven't convinced a judge.
More than a year ago they argued their case in the Tallahassee courtroom of Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark, asking her to ban the tag because it carried a biblical message inextricably linked with antiabortion activists. Their lawyer, Barry Silver, claims that unconstitutionally entangles government with religion. "Choose Life" has its origin in a biblical passage in Deuteronomy, he explained, and these words are "intimidating" to abortion-rights advocates.
Has it ever occurred to Silver and his clients that while it is true that the antiabortion movement has a religious underpinning, not everyone who opposes abortion and displays a "Choose Life" license plate is a religious zealot? I know atheists who oppose abortion, just as I know deeply religious people who support abortion rights. And while "Choose Life" can be traced to the Bible, so can "Thou shall not kill." Would anyone object to a license plate opposing murder? Well, maybe Silver and NOW might try to make the case that it violates church-state separation because some people consider abortion murder.
Judge Clark didn't buy the constitutional arguments. Last November, she ruled against NOW. The plaintiffs changed their legal strategy and are back in court, this time asking a federal judge to stop the distribution of fees from the sale of the tag because abortion-right groups are not eligible for any of the money. The state law approving the license plate specifies that the fees go to nongovernment, nonprofit organizations that promote adoptions and are not involved in abortion services. Some counties have given the money to Catholic Charities, which NOW contends violates church-state separation, even though the charity gets government money for its other services. The state takes the disingenuous position that the plaintiffs have no standing to sue since no prochoice group offering adoption counseling has been denied access to the funds.
The state has more than 50 different specialty license plates, but according to Brigitte Amiri, attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, the "Choose Life' plate is the only one that restricts speech because the state says "if you are even affiliated with abortion-related services, you can't get these funds."
Neither side is being completely honest. NOW argues that its lawsuit is in defense of the First Amendment. No, it's really a defense of abortion ideology. The "Choose Life" crowd says that it's all about adoption. No, it's really all about making a political statement against abortion. If adoption were their true goal, they could have asked for license plate with "Adopt a Child" as its message. The Legislature, too, insisted the plate is pro-adoption, not antiabortion. If that's true, why did it limit the distribution of the money to only groups not involved in abortion services? Is it not possible for a prochoice group to offer counseling on both abortion and the adoption alternative? Possible, but unlikely.
The fact is that the "Choose Life" plate is all about abortion politics and totally irrelevant to abortion rights. It may be bad state policy, but it's not preventing pregnant women from getting an abortion. The Florida Supreme Court has been steadfast in upholding a woman's right to choose an abortion with few restrictions. So why do the abortion-rights activists go hysterical when the Legislature gives a small, symbolic victory to antiabortion forces, who rarely prevail in the courtroom or in the legislative arena? Maybe it's because NOW, like the National Rifle Association, can't stand to lose a fight, no matter how insignificant.
So far more than 25,000 "Choose Life" plates have been sold (it's not even close to being a bestseller), and more than $500,000 in fees has been distributed to adoption counseling groups. The plates are optional; no one is forced to display the "Choose Life" message on a car. I see these plates every day, and I honestly can't say they offend me, intimidate me or make me want to rush to court to have them banned and destroyed.
I wish the state would get rid of all specialty plates, even the Save the Manatee tag that offends boaters and fishermen. The state license plate shouldn't be turned into a political bumper sticker -- or a senseless court fight.