WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) -- In a case that could impact pro-life specialty plates in nearly 30 states, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday revived North Carolina's embattled Choose Life license plate, vacating a circuit court decision that had said the specialty tag could be issued only if the state also allowed a pro-choice alternative.
Without comment, the justices vacated a unanimous 2014 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and ordered that panel to re-consider the case in light of a decision by the Supreme Court in mid-June that also related to specialty tags.
It was a big win for North Carolina pro-lifers, who helped push through a bill in 2011 in the state Assembly that allowed for creation of the tags, which cost an additional $25 for motorists. A total of $15 of that fee benefits the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an organization that supports pregnant women in the state.
But the ACLU sued before the first tag even was issued, and it won at the district court before also winning at the Fourth Circuit, which agreed with the ACLU's contention that a pro-choice tag must be allowed to balance the message.
A majority of states – 28 – allow for the production and issuing of Choose Life plates, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.
The Supreme Court's order, which came in a two-sentence unsigned ruling, doesn't guarantee the Choose Life plate will survive, but it did raise hopes for the Alliance Defending Freedom and allied attorneys who are defending the tag.
"The First Amendment does not allow groups like the ACLU to suppress a state's positive message just because the state does not also simultaneously approve a conflicting negative message," said ADF senior counsel Steven H. Aden. "Citizens of North Carolina have the freedom to promote messages on their vehicles that their legislature has expressly adopted through license plate legislation."
ADF is representing Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate, and Thom Tillis, who then was speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and now is a U.S. senator.
Ironically, it is a ruling that was considered anti-specialty plates that could save the North Carolina pro-life tags.
In that mid-June ruling, the Supreme Court held that Texas was within its constitutional rights to reject a tag that had the Confederate battle flag on it. That decision seemed to place the veto power over specialty plates in the hands of state legislators.
For Illinois pro-lifers, that was bad news, because their state legislature has refused to allow any tags related to the abortion debate. But for North Carolina pro-lifers, it may have been good news, because their legislature previously sided with them. The case was Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"Third parties like the ACLU cannot sanitize the public square of views a state communicates simply because they do not like those messages," attorney Scott Gaylord, a professor of law at Elon University School of Law, said. Gaylor is an ADF allied attorney. "As the Supreme Court made clear in Walker, the attempt to censor a message like North Carolina's 'Choose Life' message is inconsistent with both the purpose of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court's government speech precedents."