Vermont Vanity Plates Can Refer To Religion, Says Court

A federal appeals court has struck down a Vermont law that bans religious messages on vanity license plates.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the statute barring a Vermont man from obtaining a plate referring to a Biblical verse “impermissibly restricts expression from a religious viewpoint.”

In 2004, Shawn Byrnes applied for a vanity plate that references John 3:16, a verse from the New Testament. The plate would read “JN36TN.”

Byrnes was denied because his request violated a Vermont law prohibiting any number and letter combinations that refer, “in any language, to a…religion” or “deity.”

“The state rejected Byrne’s message only because it addressed…areas of otherwise permissible expression from a religious perspective,” the appeals court wrote in Byrne v. Rutledge. “This the state cannot do.”

The court narrowed its ruling to apply only to the state’s ban on religious messages, but said the state can still keep its ban on vanity plates that refer to scatological subjects, genitalia, illicit drugs, racial epithets and other objectionable material.