Appeals Court reverses course, allows North Carolina’s “Choose Life” license plate to go forward

By Dave Andrusko

northcarolinachooselifeIt was a long, long time in the making, but North Carolina finally will be able to issue a “Choose Life” specialty license plate.

The decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the holdings of a prior decision it had rendered on the issue.

In 2014, it upheld a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox against the 2011 law, 2-1. Fox had concluded, “The State’s offering of a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”

But, as the Associated Press’s Emery P. Dalesio wrote today,

That was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Texas case last year that specialty license plates represented government speech, allowing Texas to reject a proposal for tags featuring a Confederate battle flag.

The Supreme Court ordered the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court to reconsider the North Carolina case in light of its decision on the Texas tags.

With that as guidance, a three-judge panel of that same appeals court reversed itself today, although again on a 2-1 vote. In the appeals court’s majority decision, Chief Judge William Traxler wrote.

“We now conclude that specialty license plates issued under North Carolina’s program amount to government speech and that North Carolina is therefore free to reject license plate designs that convey messages with which it disagrees.”

Judge James Wynn dissented, “saying the other two judges were misreading the implications of the Supreme Court’s Texas case,” according to Dalesio.

Under provision of the law, passed by the North Carolina General Assembly , citizens could pay an additional $25 fee for the “Choose Life” license plate, $15 of which would go to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a private organization that supports the needs of pregnant women in North Carolina.

Following the appeals court’s 2014 decision, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) noted that North Carolina offers other specialty plates that also fund causes that benefit the state and are consistent with its public policies.

“The 4th Circuit’s decision is at odds with other circuits that have upheld the right of states to issue such plates,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman.

“Pro-life people worked hard to get this ‘Choose Life’ license plate,” said Barbara Holt, President of North Carolina Right to Life. “They will be the ones who will purchase them. The extra money they voluntarily pay for the plate will go toward encouraging adoption.”

She told NRL News Today in 2014,“No one is being forced to buy these plates.”

The law had never taken effect, due to a challenge by the ACLU.

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