“Choose Life” License Plates: Part II

Van R Irion

Lifeline readers may remember an article from the Spring 2001 issue describing the battle to have “Choose Life” license plates issued in California. Funds raised through the sale of these plates were to benefit organizations that encourage expectant mothers to choose adoption rather than abortion. You’ve probably noticed that these plates are still not available. The good news is that the battle is still being fought. The better news is that recent developments may have turned the tide of that battle in our favor.

A variety of specialty license plates have been made available in California over the past few years. Readers may have noticed Firefighter, Pearl Harbor Survivor, or Purple Heart recipient license plates. Motorists must pay $50 to purchase the plates and an additional $40 per year at re-registration.

Most specialty plates have been authorized by the State legislature as a way of raising money for specific government programs. Private, non-profit organizations can also apply to have specialty plates offered on their behalf. A portion of the benefits from these sales goes to the non-profit. However the approval process is difficult. First, a bill must be passed by the legislature authorizing the new specialty plate. Then the non-profit has one year to register at least 7,500 motorists willing to purchase the new plate.

Only one private organization, the Yosemite Fund, has fulfilled both of these requirements and obtained their own specialty plate. However, many non-profits have gotten past the first step. Girl Scouts of America, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and CALSTART, an environmental organization, have all had legislation passed authorizing specialty plates. None of these organizations were able to register enough motorists within the given year to fulfill the second requirement.

The Women’s Resource Network, sponsors of the “Choose Life” specialty plates, have had the opposite problem. Despite having over 10,000 signed postcards from motorists willing to purchase the Choose Life license plates, all attempts to pass the required legislation has failed. In 2001 State Senator Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) sponsored SB251, the first attempt to authorize Women’s Resource Network’s “Choose Life” license plates. This bill was the subject of the earlier Lifeline article. As expected the bill was resoundingly defeated by pro-abortion forces within the California legislature. Two more attempts have been made to pass legislation authorizing the “Choose Life” plates, both beginning in the State assembly. However both of these bills died in committee.

Following these defeats, the Women’s Resource Network filed suit in Federal court claiming that the California legislature’s unbridled authority to deny a request for specialty plates represents a violation of free speech. They claim that the legislature denied their request based upon disagreement with the organization’s viewpoint. By requiring legislation to authorize specialty plates, politicians may grant one organization the right to express its point of view on thousands of vehicles, while denying another organization the same right. Since the legislature is not required to explain its motivations, there is no way to ensure that its denial is not based solely upon disagreement with the organization’s message. In fact, in defending the State, the Attorney General’s office admitted that the legislature only authorizes specialty plates for organizations that have a purpose they think is worthy of sponsoring.

On September 5, LLDF affiliate attorney Mike Millen obtained a preliminary injunction on behalf of Women’s Resource Network pending the outcome of this lawsuit. The injunction prevents the California Department of Motor Vehicles from issuing any new specialty plates on behalf of private organizations. By granting a preliminary injunction the court is acknowledging the fact that Women’s Resource Network’s case has a very good chance of succeeding. Mr. Millen believes that Women’s Resource Center will win their case on summary judgment in the near future.

So, how does this help get “Choose Life” license plates on the streets? The legislature is now prevented from using the discriminatory process they have been using to select private organizations for the specialty plate program. If Women’s Resource Network wins its case, this preliminary injunction will become permanent. Most legislators still want the specialty plate program to be available to private organizations. This lawsuit will force the state to adopt a non-discriminatory selection process. According to Dana Serrano, director of Women’s Resource Network, California State Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco) is planning to propose legislation that would eliminate the legislative approval requirement for new specialty plates. Senator Burton had previously indicated that he would fight any attempt to change the selection process. It may be that pressure from WRN’s lawsuit is helping to change the Senator’s mind.

The selection process that is likely to be adopted is similar to successful programs from several other states. It would simply require an organization to apply with the Department of Motor Vehicles, register 7,500 motorists, and fulfill basic organizational accounting requirements. Six states have already approved “Choose Life” license plates raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for pro-life organizations. Mrs. Serrano emphasized that, while she is glad that the selection process for specialty plates in California will be fairer, her main concern has always been to promote adoption. Approval of “Choose Life” plates will allow her organization to help expectant mothers and adoptive families.

The fate of the California “Choose Life” license plates is still not certain, but the efforts of Dana Serrano,Mike Millen, State Senator Ray Haynes, and many others seem finally to be paying off. Life Legal Defense Foundation thanks all of its supporters, your donations are helping to fund this lawsuit.

For more information about the legal action, please see Mr. Millen’s web site at http://www.freespeechdefense.com. For more information about “Choose Life” license plates, or Women’s Resource Network please see www.cachoose-life.org.