A New Jersey woman is suing the state Motor Vehicle Commission over its refusal to issue her a license plate reading '8THEIST.'
Shannon Morgan contends that the denied license plate violates her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Thursday, says the Cumberland County resident applied in November for a vanity license plate that read '8THEIST.' When Morgan tried to submit her choice on the commission's website, she received a message that said her "requested plate text is considered objectionable," according to the lawsuit.
"She is offended by the Commission's decision to prohibit her from obtaining this plate; the Commission's declaration that this self-expression is 'objectionable' demeans her viewpoint," the suit says.
Sandy Grossman, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the agency doesn't comment on pending lawsuits. But she added that the commission doesn't have a blanket policy banning vanity plates that reference atheism, and it "carefully reviews" all requests for personalized tags.
The lawsuit says Morgan then entered 'BAPTIST' into the state's online vanity-plate system; it appeared that plate was accepted and she would have been able to continue her application for a personalized license plate.
Denying the atheist plate but permitting the religious one "expresses a preference for theistic beliefs over non-theistic beliefs," violating her First Amendment rights, the suit claims.
An attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty group, is one of the lawyers representing Morgan.
"The state of New Jersey is favoring religion while disparaging non-belief," Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "It simply has no right to do that."
The case isn't the first time contentious vanity license plates have made news.
In August, David Silverman, the president of the organization American Atheists and a New Jersey resident, applied for a personalized plate reading "ATHE1ST." His application was originally denied, but the commission reversed its decision and allowed the plate.
And the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported last year that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation keeps a "Do Not Issue" list of about 10,000 combinations of letters and numbers that it won't permit on license plates.
'8THEIST' does not appear on PennDOT's list of banned plates, according to a database the newspaper posted online.