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Abortion-rights group challenges Florida's 'Choose Life' plates

By The Associated Press

01.21.02

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — An abortion-rights law firm challenged the constitutionality of Florida's "Choose Life" license plates Jan. 15, saying in a lawsuit the way the funds it raises are distributed violates the separation of church and state.

The federal lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to block further distribution of more than $650,000 raised from sales of the plates since 2000. Counties use the money to promote adoption, sometimes giving the money to religious groups.

The suit was filed on behalf of two nonprofit groups prohibited from receiving the funds because they counsel women on abortion.

"This scheme turns the Florida government into a fund-raiser for the anti-choice movement," said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which represents the plaintiffs.

Lynda Bell, spokeswoman for Florida Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, said the suit "proves how radically left these pro-abortion groups are."

She said the legislation authorizing the license plates says the money raised will sponsor adoption-related groups. If the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy wants to raise money to support abortion, they should lobby the Legislature to authorize such a plate.

"They just can't stand having such a positive message about adoption" before the public, Bell said. She predicts the lawsuit will be quickly dismissed.

An earlier state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the plates was thrown out late last year by a Leon County judge. Opponents in that suit had claimed the plates amounted to a state-sponsored religious message.

Amiri said this suit was different because it challenges the constitutionality of the distribution of funds rather than the plates' message.

"An organization that is pro-choice by definition can't receive funds," she said. "That's a direct infringement on those organizations' First Amendment right to free speech."

She said Florida also was violating the separation of church and state because some counties were allowing religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities Inc., to distribute the state funds.

The suit ultimately seeks to recall the plates, arguing they discriminate against people who want to express a different viewpoint because a pro-choice plate isn't available.

The optional plates went on sale in August 2000 and more than 25,000 had been sold through the end of October.

Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the state Motor Vehicles Department, said he couldn't comment because he hadn't seen the lawsuit. He added that the agency was simply carrying out a law passed by the Legislature.

Messages left at Catholic Charities offices in Miami and Palm Beach Gardens were not immediately returned.

The case, Women's Emergency Network v. Bush, was assigned to U.S. District Judge Michael Moore in Miami.

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy filed a similar lawsuit against Louisiana's Choose Life license plates. A judge in that case ruled in its favor, and the group is awaiting the outcome of the state's appeal.

Update

Federal judge throws out challenge to Florida's 'Choose Life' plates
Court says abortion-rights groups lack sufficient evidence to back claims that fee-distribution process violates church-state separation, free speech.  07.19.02

Related

Court applies brakes to Florida's 'Choose Life' plates
Judge agrees to decide whether message amounts to political statement after National Organization for Women files suit.  02.10.00

'Choose Life' plates opponents ask full appeals court to hear case
5th Circuit panel had sent case back to lower court with instructions to dismiss, saying plaintiffs didn't have standing to sue Louisiana.  04.16.02

Attorneys for state seek green light for 'Choose Life' plates
Federal appeals court hears arguments from Louisiana officials who want injunction blocking sale of tags lifted.  08.10.01

Kansas governor nixes 'Choose Life' plates
Meanwhile, lawmakers revive effort to create similar tags in Oklahoma.  04.26.02

Abortion-rights activists criticize new Oklahoma 'Choose Life' plates
'By producing plates that are pro-life, the government is authorizing unconstitutional speech by opponents of abortion,' says Planned Parenthood representative.  05.25.02

S.C. 'Choose Life' license plates put on hold
Federal judge grants preliminary injunction sought by Planned Parenthood.  11.20.01

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