CHICAGO – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Illinois secretary of state's office does not have to issue specialty license plates bearing the slogan "Choose Life" favored by anti-abortion forces.
State officials are within their rights in trying to keep either viewpoint on the emotional issue of abortion off of Illinois license plates, the court said, reversing a January 2007 order from a lower court.
"It is undisputed that Illinois has excluded the entire subject of abortion from its specialty plate program," the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
"It has authorized neither a pro-life plate nor a pro-choice plate," the court said. "It has done so on the reasonable rationale that messages on specialty license plates give the appearance of having the government's endorsement, and Illinois does not wish to be perceived as endorsing any position on abortion."
It said the state's position on the issue represented a restriction on content, not an unconstitutional restriction on free speech viewpoint, since it bars both viewpoints on one of the biggest hot-button issues in the legal world.
Friday's ruling — based on an appeal by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White — reversed a 2007 ruling by U.S. District Judge David H. Coar.
Coar had ordered the secretary of state's office to start producing the plates as long as proponents, led by Choose Life Illinois Inc., could show that enough people were interested and the design met the state's specifications for specialty plates. But Coar stayed his order pending appeal by White.
Among other things, Coar said the slogan "Choose Life" could indicate that proponents favored adoption and rejected the notion that it was a thinly disguised anti-abortion slogan. But the appeals court addressed itself to the abortion issue.
Attorneys for Choose Life Illinois and the secretary of state's office did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Proponents of "Choose Life" plates had brought their crusade to federal court after years of trying unsuccessfully to get state legislators to authorize them.
The secretary of state's office issues 60 different specialty plates dedicated to interests ranging from pet lovers to environmentalists. But White's office said all the plates had been authorized by the legislature and signed by the governor.
Coar had ruled that White didn't need legislative approval to issue the plate. But since then, the Illinois General Assembly has passed legislation barring issuance of specialty plates without its approval and the governor's signature. The appeals panel said that settled the question of whether legislative approval is required.