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Driver: State must yield to request for plates with biblical messages

By The Associated Press


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MONTPELIER, Vt. — State motor vehicles officials are in yet another legal fight over what is allowed on vanity license plates.

Nancy Zins, who is the headmaster of the Rutland Area Christian School, applied last fall for two sets of vanity plates for herself and her husband that had references to Biblical chapters on them.

But Department of Motor Vehicles officials say the plates — one of which would read "ROMANS5" — would violate rules for vanity plates, and the application was denied in November.

Bonnie Rutledge, commissioner of motor vehicles, said the new rules adopted by the department last year prohibit references to "race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliations."

Vulgar messages or messages with sexual connotations are prohibited, as are references to drugs, Rutledge said.

"That's why it's denied," Rutledge said referring to Zins' request. "Not because we think it's offensive."

But in a suit filed in Washington Superior Court, Zins' lawyer argued that the plates were rejected because the department found them offensive.

"These passages had provided her and her husband a great deal of hope and comfort over the years," Zins' lawyer said in documents filed with the court. "Mrs. Zins states that the passages are not offensive."

The suit contends the vanity plate restrictions are unconstitutional because they infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The suit also charges the department with misapplying some of its rules and asserts that the department exceeded its authority.

Zins' fight has attracted attention from the Rutherford Institute, which is based in Virginia, and conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

"The Vermont DMV surely has better ways to spend tax dollars than to enforce a 'civility code' on the state's streets and highways," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.


Vanity plate fight lands in Vermont high court
Similar battles seen across U.S. as states grapple with where to draw the line between free expression and words that might offend.  03.20.02