A federal judge recently ruled that having a license plate that reads “IM GOD” is protected under the First Amendment. The ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and the Freedom From Religion Foundation in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky man who was denied the personalized plate.
The Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV), initially refused Ben Hart’s request in early 2016, labeling his license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” The state later said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.”
Hart sued on the basis of having his First Amendment rights violated, but the state asked for the case to be tossed out, citing protections against lawsuits from private citizens. But last week District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove ruled in Hart’s favor, stating that his First Amendment rights override those protections.
“I can prove I’m God. You can’t prove I’m not. Now, how can I prove I’m God? Well, there are six definitions for God in the American Heritage Dictionary, and number five is a very handsome man, and my wife says I’m a very handsome man, and nobody argues with my wife,” Hart told WXIX-TV following the ruling.
Hart said that he drove around Ohio with “IM GOD” on his plate for more than a decade before being denied the official plate after crossing into Kentucky.
“What we have to guard against is the encroachment on our rights, on the Constitution,” Hart said.
Despite the DMV’s objections, Hart insisted that “it didn’t seem to bother people at all,” adding that “once in a while, I got somebody to ask me about it.”
The ACLU of Kentucky cheered the legal victory, affirming that a state-sanctioned denial of Hart’s license plate is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
“Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based on reasons we believe violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” ACLU-KY Attorney Heather Gatnarek said in a statement after the March 31 ruling. “We’ll be making that argument to the court as the case moves forward.”
“Hart is seeking approval of his license plate application, and a finding by the court that provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation stated on its website.
With Judge Van Tatenhove’s backing, the case will move forward.
“We are looking forward to having this case resolved on the merits,” FFRF Senior Legal Counsel Patrick Elliott said.