Court Allows 'Choose Life' License Plates in Tennessee

A federal appeals court Friday allowed Tennessee to offer anti-abortion license plates bearing the message "Choose Life."

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overturned a lower-court ruling that said the tag illegally promoted only one side of the abortion debate.

"Although this exercise of government one-sidedness with respect to a very contentious political issue may be ill-advised, we are unable to conclude that the Tennessee statute contravenes the First Amendment," Judge John M. Rogers said in a 2-1 ruling.

An anti-abortion group, Tennessee Right to Life, declared victory.

"It's a validation of our position all along that the Legislature had the authority to authorize a plate that favors normal childbirth over the practice of abortion," said Brian Harris, the group's president.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr. said the plates should be banned because they amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

The plaintiffs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, said they were still reviewing Friday's ruling.

Abortion-rights proponents complained the state does not offer those with other political views a similar way to express them. An attempt to create a "Choose Choice" tag failed in the Legislature in 2002.

Federal appeals courts have been divided over whether such license plate programs are constitutional. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling that said similar South Carolina license plates violated the First Amendment.

Drivers will be able to pay an extra fee in Tennessee for the "Choose Life" plate, and some of the proceeds will go to New Life Resources, an anti-abortion group.

Tennessee is the 13th state to offer "Choose Life" plates. The others are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Most states donate proceeds to adoption groups, but Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland and Montana donate at least some of the money to anti-abortion groups.

Tennessee has more than 120 specialty plates, most of them saluting uncontroversial subjects such as the Tennessee Titans football team, the Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee Walking Horse.

Gov. Phil Bredesen let the anti-abortion license plates measure become law but declined to sign it, and he urged lawmakers to develop a new approach to deciding which causes would benefit from the sale of specialty plates.