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Plate debate

A Fargo man says the state has violated the separation of church and state by rejecting ISNOGOD for his personalized license plate.

In an appeal letter to the state’s Department of Transportation director, Brian Magee said the state has allowed other vehicles to carry plates with religious messages, including PRZZGOD, ILOVGOD and TRI GOD, which he included photos of.

“(I)f the state only allows one point of view on religion to be expressed on its property (the license plates), then it is an endorsement of that point of view,” Magee wrote.

Transportation Director Francis Ziegler is out of the office until Monday, according to his office. Department spokeswoman Peggy Anderson said the request is in review and a decision will be made in a few days.

State law leaves approval up to the discretion of the Motor Vehicle Division.  According to department documents, requests must include the meaning of the characters.

Anderson said the division rejects applications that are vulgar, hostile or prejudicial; advocate violence or lawlessness; provoke a violent response; refer to illegal drugs; or incite lust.  When questionable applications are submitted, she said, a panel reviews them.

Magee said the reason behind the rejection was that it might offend people who would challenge the plate and might cause the state to have to recall it.

He said religious license plates could be offensive to people like himself who don’t believe in “deities of any kind.”

Magee proposes two solutions in his letter: the approval of his license plate application or the recall of plates with a religious point of view. He said he would prefer if the state chose the recall option.

He’s surprised by the number of religious plates in North Dakota.  Magee is originally from Maryland and has lived in Fargo for two years.

A federal district court decided in 1994 that a ban by Virginia’s Division of Motor Vehicles on reference to deities was unconstitutional.

“I think the easiest thing to do would be to just give the man his plate,” said Robert Boston, a senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Boston said he did not think the state had grounds to ban Magee’s application because it did not contain obscenity.

“The state has created a forum for free speech and has prevented this individual from participating in it,” he said.

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Magee said he had expected his application to be rejected when he submitted it.

The Rev. Michael Horn of St. George’s Episcopal Church said while he didn’t have a strong opinion on the subject, he thought it was the state’s decision.

“(What’s on a license plate) certainly doesn’t affect my religion,” he said.

Issues involving personalized license plates have been decided in court in several states, including New York, South Dakota and Ohio.

A South Carolina license plate design that featured a cross and said

“I believe” was declared unconstitutional in federal court.

Magee said he wasn’t sure if he was willing to take his appeal to court.  He said he would probably make individual appeals against plates with religious messages.

(Reach reporter Emily Coleman at 250-8256 or emily.coleman@bismarcktribune.com.)

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