WILMINGTON, N.C., Dec. 11 (UPI) -- A federal judge has ruled North Carolina can't issue "Choose Life" vehicle license plates without offering a plate with alternate views.
The America Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit, hailed the decision by U.S. District Judge James Fox, who said the Legislature's decision was unconstitutional because it was "viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment," The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported Monday.
"The court finds that this conclusion is in keeping with the common-sense notion that the North Carolina specialty plate program as a whole, and the 'Choose Life' plates in particular, are, at bottom, a government-sponsored avenue to encourage private speech," Fox, based in Wilmington, said in his ruling.
"This is a great victory for the free speech rights of all North Carolinians, regardless of their point of view on reproductive freedom," Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU's North Carolina Legal Foundation, said in a statement. "The government cannot create an avenue of expression for one side of a contentious political issue while denying an equal opportunity to citizens with the opposite view."
Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper, said the ruling was being reviewed and no decision had been made regarding an appeal.
Fifteen months ago, the ACLU sued on behalf of four "pro-choice automobile owners" who argued "Choose Life" plates amounted to state-sponsored discrimination. Attempts to include license plates with phrases such as "Respect Choice" failed in the Republican-led Legislature.
State Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, who sponsored the legislation, told The News & Observer Monday he has tried for 14 years to get a "Choose Life" plate included in the specialty program of the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
He said abortion rights advocates approached him about inclusion but he said he didn't want their message in legislation he sponsored. Gillespie opposes abortion rights.
"I don't have a problem with them having their side of the opinion heard but I would not like it to be under my name," Gillespie said.
Fox halted sales of "Choose Life" plates as the ACLU lawsuit worked its way the courts.