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Man Fights DMV for Bible Verse Vanity Plate

This is a rush transcript from "America's News HQ," December 17, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

HEATHER NAUERT, HOST: A three-year-long fight for a personalized vanity plate. One Vermont man wants his license plate to read this — JN36TN. It's a symbol for the Bible passage John 3:16. Well, in response to that, the state rejected his application for that license plate. His attorneys are calling the move religious discrimination, especially because Vermont has allowed other controversial and religiously-themed plates.

Joining me right now is the senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. His name is David Cortman, and David is representing the gentleman who would like this license plate.

OK, David, let me start by asking you this. I'm surprised that the state of Vermont would actually see this license plate and figure out what it was, that it was John 3:16. How on earth did the DMV happen to figure that out?

Video: Watch Heather Nauert's interview

DAVID CORTMAN, SENIOR LEGAL COUNSEL, ALLIANCE DEFENSE FUND: Well, there's a few different ways. He put on his application, obviously, that it referred to a Bible passage. But what's interesting here is that this is just another all-too familiar time that we see censorship of religious speech in the marketplace. And I think that's exactly what's going on here.

NAUERT: OK. Now, let's take a look at what Vermont has had to say about this. Officials with the state of Vermont — they declined to take part in our interview but they gave as a statement saying, "The law excluding religion from Vermont license plates is neutral. It prohibits a license plate like Mr. Byrne's" — that's your client — "that refers to a Biblical passage and it prohibits a license plate that says NOGOD or HATEGOD. When a license plate application is unclear, the department considers the meaning that the person puts on the application." — like they did with your client. "If that meaning refers to one of the prohibited categories, then the plate will be denied." What is your reaction to that?

CORTMAN: Well, it's interesting, there's so many problems with that statement, I don't know where to begin. I think the most obvious one is that since when does censorship be defined as neutrality? I mean, neutrality is not taking a position on an issue. There, in this case, they're completely banning it.

The second thing is, they say they ban religion but as you mentioned, if you look at the license plates already allowed, Buddha is in, Kali is in.

NAUERT: Yes. Let's take a look at that, because we have a list of them. So let's put them up so everybody at home can see. HIREPWR is one that they allowed. PSALM64. BUDDHA — of course, you've got to allow him, right. NOAHARK, ACLU1, ANARCHY, PRONUKE, and TREEHUGGER.

So they're willing to allow all of those but not yours. Can you possibly explain why they would allow those, but not John 3:16?

CORTMAN: Well, that's exactly the point here. Not only do they say on one side of the mouth that we prohibit controversial topics like religion — they don't. They allow all religions in — Buddhism is in, Hinduism is in, but Christianity is out.

And so, first of all, they don't even apply the standards that they say. The problem, though, is, viewpoint discrimination — who gets to decide at the list you mentioned, what comes in and what stays out? And in this specific case, you know, we've seen John 3:16 in football fields on the end zone. We've heard about it growing, not exactly a highly controversial thing.

NAUERT: Well, you certainly you don't see the NFL or Major League Baseball blocking that one out from its camera shot. But unfortunately, David Cortman, we're going to have to leave it there. But we'd like to continue following this story because this is something that continues to crop up. South Carolina had that license plate it wanted to do called IBELIEVE. A judge ruled that unconstitutional. So we'll keep following these stories for you. David Cortman, bye-bye. Thanks a lot.

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