CHICAGO – A federal judge ordered state officials Monday to offer license plates with the pro-adoption motto "Choose Life," brushing aside claims that the slogan is really a thinly disguised anti-abortion message.
Judge David H. Coar acknowledged concerns that the motto "Choose Life" could be considered an anti-abortion slogan — a worry that has doomed several years of efforts to get state legislative approval of the plates.
Coar said in his 20-page opinion he assumed that the request for a "Choose Life" license plate was prompted by a sincere interest in promoting adoption. He said the state must issue the plate as long as sponsors of the idea can meet certain numerical and design requirements.
State law initially required 10,000 people willing to buy such plates before they could be issued but that number now has been reduced to 850.
The secretary of state's office already issues 60 different kinds of specialty license plates to Illinois motorists. Groups with special plates dedicated to their interests range from pet lovers to environmentalists.
A group called Choose Life Illinois Inc., made up largely of adoption advocates, has been trying for several years to get legislative approval.
The state's refusal to allow the "Choose Life" license plates led to the federal lawsuit, which was filed by the group on June 28, 2004, and accused the secretary of state of violating their constitutional rights.
The group's president, Jim Finnegan, was not reached immediately for comment Monday night. A message was left on his answering machine.
Coar's ruling was issued on the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, but made no mention of the 1973 case.
Some legislators have said they distrust putting the slogan on Illinois license plates, believing it sounds an anti-abortion message.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, reached Monday night, said he believed the message was designed to campaign for a ban on abortions, saying both the adoption and anti-abortion causes have a number of the same sponsors.
"The anti-choice folks will look for any edge they can find to push their agenda," Lang said.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, a sponsor of the measure, hailed Coar's decision. He scoffed at the notion that the "Choose Life" campaign was a way of getting an anti-abortion message onto state highways.
"It's a pro-life message, for children, not necessarily abortion," he said. He acknowledged that the measure had been killed in committee at the legislature by critics who saw the message in terms of the abortion issue.
Former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, R-Palos Park, another sponsor, said in a telephone interview Monday night that it made no difference even if "Choose Life" did represent an anti-abortion slogan.
"Does that make it bad?" O'Malley said. "Whether it is or it isn't you should still be allowed to express yourself."
Among those who were critical of the legislation when it was introduced was U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., then a state senator.
"If we're going to promote one side, the other side has to be promoted as well," Obama said at the time.
Coar said in his opinion that it was "undisputed that the reason for not approving the plate was because of the politically controversial nature of the message."
But he said the message would not be relevant in any case.
"The First Amendment protects unpopular, even some hateful speech," he said. "The message conveyed by the proposed license plate is subject to First Amendment protection."
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's office opposed the suit, saying it believes that there must be legislative approval before it can issue any kind of specialty license plates.
A spokesman, David Druker, said that the secretary of state's office plans to appeal Coar's decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We have no opinion on the message," Druker said.