Appeals court hears Missouri 'Choose Life' case

Thursday, October 16, 2008 | 4:38 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — A federal appeals court heard arguments Thursday in a Missouri case that questions whether a "Choose Life" license plate is constitutionally protected private speech.

Attorneys for Alliance Defense Fund argued that the license plate shouldn't be disallowed just because a couple of legislators objected, while Missouri's attorneys argued that the state retains exclusive control of messages on license plates and can reject them.

"The question is: Who is the speaker and what is the message?" Assistant Attorney General Joel Anderson said. "It's government speech."

The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal group that advocates for religious freedom, sued in June 2006 on behalf of Choose Life of Missouri.

The suit alleged lawmakers violated free speech, due process and equal protection rights by rejecting the group's application for the specialty plate, while approving other proposals.

Defense Fund attorney Joel Oster said the Missouri Legislature didn't create the message, just the forum for private organizations to express their sentiments and raise funds for their causes. An applicant for the license plate pays Choose Life, not the government, a $25 fee.

Oster argued that Missouri law lacks rules and guidelines that prevent discrimination of speech based on a viewpoint.

"'Choose Life' is a positive message that needs to be heard," Oster said. "The plate should not be denied because two pro-choice senators disagreed with that viewpoint."

Oster reminded the appeals court of a ruling protecting the speech in the vanity plate "ARYAN-1" in a 2001 Missouri case.

The suit over the Choose Life plate named as defendants Department of Revenue Director Trish Vincent and the 14 members of a joint House and Senate Transportation Committee, which rejected the application after two abortion rights members objected.

For a new specialty plate to be approved, no committee members can oppose it. A formal objection from two senators or five House members before a vote also kills it.

In January, U.S. District Judge Scott Wright in Kansas City ruled that the Choose Life plates must be issued. He also found that state law on the matter was "unconstitutionally vague and over-broad."

The state appealed.

The three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that heard arguments Thursday isn't expected to issue a decision for weeks.

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