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A fight to put the brakes on a license plate law

In Indiana, the extra fee for specialty tags doesn't apply to one that invokes the divine. Critics go to court.

April 29, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

FORT WAYNE, IND. — When Mark Studler was renewing his specialty license plate recently, which touts his support of environmental issues, he expected to pay the annual premium of $40 to the state.

After all, he wanted to express his love of the great outdoors every time he hit the highways -- and liked that $25 of the fee was donated to the Indiana Heritage Trust, a state conservation group.

But he objected to a new license plate that he felt also qualified as a specialty plate -- one with the motto "In God We Trust" -- but didn't require a premium. Not even the $15 extra fee that usually goes to the state for administrative costs.

"I don't have any problem with people expressing their religious beliefs, whether it's on a bumper sticker or their license plate," said Studler, 49, a construction worker. "But folks should be treated in the same way -- and charged the same fees by the state -- as Hoosiers who prefer that their custom tags promote education or the environment."

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit, on behalf of Studler, in state court against the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Commissioner Ronald L. Stiver. The complaint challenges a law that lets motorists get the "In God We Trust" design without paying the $15 administrative fee.

The state says the new "In God We Trust" plate is not a specialty plate -- like dozens of others it offers -- but rather a second "standard" plate, like the one that features a pastoral scene, and is thus not subject to special fees.

State officials say the plate, introduced in January, has been a hit, chosen by more than 540,000 motorists. That means that had the state charged the $15 fee, it would have an additional $8 million in its coffers.

"The issue isn't the message. It's not about religion," said Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana, which filed the suit in Marion Superior Court on Monday.

"It's about making sure that nearly every other plate that carries a message has a cost attached to it, and this does not," Falk said. "In a state that's as religious as Indiana, the phrase 'In God We Trust' is not just about supporting the national motto. It's about saying you believe in God."

BMV chief Stiver countered in a statement: "The Indiana BMV follows established laws and makes sure they are implemented properly and fairly.... [T]he BMV simply does not promote any plate design over another. There are dozens of options, and a substantial number of customers have simply elected to place this particular plate on their vehicles."

The design of the new plate is simple: An American flag stretches across the bottom of a deep-blue background, with the motto printed on the left.

All plates issued by the state start at $20.75 for registration and go up from there based on vehicle type, taxes and other fees.

The state issued nearly 5 million standard license plates for trucks and cars last year, according to the BMV. About 7% were issued as specialty plates.

The more than 75 specialty plates the state offers at a premium allow drivers to support causes and interests such as arts groups, breast cancer research and the Indianapolis Colts. The premiums cover the donation to the sponsoring organization plus the administration fee, which includes funding for roads and other state projects.

On Friday, the line of residents waiting to renew their driver's licenses and get plates wound outside the BMV office on the southern edge of Fort Wayne.

As Andrea Gordon slowly made her way toward the door, she passed by a wall covered in fliers vying for her registration dollars.

"Share the Hope!" pitched one offering a plate for breast cancer awareness. "Another Sunset Saved" wooed a second, pitching a pro-environmental plate.

"Step up to the plate! Support statewide efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect by purchasing a Kids First license plate," offered a third pamphlet.

"You know, I just like the idea of going with one that talks about God," said Gordon, 42, who works at a laundry. "Besides, it's cheaper and that's what really sells me on it."

Advocates of having "In God We Trust" on a standard plate say the legal fight is ludicrous.

"It's on our currency. We mention God in the Declaration of Independence," said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute. "I think the lawsuit is more than misguided. I think it shows that they're hostile to any expression of the divine."

Specialty plates, and the millions of dollars in donations they generate for groups they support, became popular nationally in the 1980s and 1990s with the introduction of technology that allowed states to print multicolored plates, said Keith Kiser of the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

"Now, every legislative session in every state, there's interest in having different distinctive licenses plates in order to generate fees for these groups," Kiser said. "You name it, there's a group that wants one and the donations that come along with them."

The debate over the "In God We Trust" plates in Indiana dates to 2005, when Republican state Rep. Woody Burton introduced a bill to create a plate that would be embraced by "both patriots and those of faith."

A point of contention was the question of where the money would go if a premium fee were collected. Initially, state legislators knocked down the bid for the plates in part over concern the fees would go to a religious organization and violate the separation between church and state.

Burton said he avoided the issue altogether when he reintroduced the bill last year by categorizing it as a "standard plate" so there wouldn't be a special fee.

"I'm a Christian, but I don't care if you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim," Burton said. "Your god may not be my god, but this is still a country that's based on faith. Why can't you tout that on your license plate?"

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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