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Atheist sues over New Jersey license plate refusal

By Elizabeth Landers, CNN
April 20, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shannon Morgan requested a vanity license plate reading "8THEIST"
  • The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission rejected her request
  • Leader of atheist group: State is "favoring religion while disparaging nonbelief"
  • Suit against the commission claims Morgan's First Amendment rights were violated

New York (CNN) -- Shannon Morgan identifies as an atheist and wants the world, or at least the car behind her, to know it. But the state of New Jersey says no.

Morgan, of Leesburg, is suing the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission for rejecting her request for a vanity license plate reading "8THEIST," according to a formal complaint filed Thursday with the district court.

But the commission nixed her request, saying the message "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency," according to the complaint.

An Americans United for Separation of Church and State legal team is now helping her sue the commission claiming Morgan's First Amendment rights were violated.

"The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging nonbelief," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the group. "It simply has no right to do that."

Morgan claims that she was denied a license plate for "8THEIST" but approved for one that read "BAPTIST" and that this "expresses a preference for theistic religious beliefs, over non-theistic beliefs" according to the complaint.

This case is all too familiar to another New Jersey native, David Silverman, who had to petition for a vanity license plate announcing his atheistic views. After he was initially rejected for a plate reading, "ATHE1ST," Silverman filed a formal complaint with the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. He says that within three days, a supervisor at the commission issued him the plate.

"The word 'atheist,' in my opinion, is not objectionable," Silverman, who is president of American Atheists, told CNN. "It's not a bad word and shouldn't be regarded as a bad word."

He takes issue with the process, saying that it's problematic that atheists have to jump through hoops only to be denied, then have to appeal before their license plates get approved.

Calls to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission were not immediately returned.

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