Case Challenges Overall Policy for Issuing Specialty Plates
Yesterday, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed an amended complaint challenging Louisiana’s policy of issuing specialty license plates. The Center charges that Louisiana’s specialty plates infringe on first amendment rights because they only express one viewpoint on an issue. In Louisiana, no pro-choice license plate exists, yet “Choose Life” plates are sold and distributed throughout the state. While anti-abortion proponents are given the opportunity to express their viewpoint on a government-sponsored license plate, efforts to create pro-choice plates have been defeated by the Louisiana legislature. The Center also argues that the license plate policy violates the separation of Church and State because it requires that the “Choose Life Council” responsible for distributing funds include fundamentalist Christian groups. In addition, plaintiffs allege that the policy’s fund distribution function discriminates based on viewpoint because organizations that offer comprehensive reproductive healthcare, which includes counseling on all pregnancy-related options, are ineligible to receive the funds.
“Louisiana is ignoring the free-speech rights of its pro-choice citizens,” said Simon Heller, Of Counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead counsel on the case. “This unconstitutional policy silences some groups and propagates the beliefs of others,” added Heller.
The “Choose Life” challenge in Louisiana was revived after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an unusual order in January allowing the plaintiffs to amend their complaint in the trial court. The new order revises a previous order requiring the trial court to dismiss the case in its entirety. In August 2000, Judge Duval of the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction preventing distribution of the license plates. On March 29, 2002, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s order. In August 2002, the Fifth Circuit also denied a request for the full 15-member court to rehear the case and denied the Center’s petition to block the dismissal of the case until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether to review the case. The petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in December 2002.
Motorists who purchase the plates pay a fee above the cost of a standard license plate. The revenue generated from the sale is then funneled to non-profit, anti-abortion organizations, including so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” that often promise comprehensive medical advice and services but deliver anti-abortion propaganda. Any organization that mentions abortion as a neutral option – including counseling, referrals or advertising – is prohibited from receiving any of the funds.
Six states have enacted legislation to create “Choose Life” license plates and are using the proceeds to help fund the distribution of biased medical and anti-choice information.
Plaintiffs in Henderson v. Stalder include Russell J. Henderson, Doreen Keeler, Rabbi Robert H. Loewy and the Greater New Orleans Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. Simon Heller and Priscilla Smith of the Center for Reproductive Rights represent the plaintiffs along with attorney William Rittenberg, of the firm Rittenberg & Samuel in New Orleans.