UPDATE: NJ has reversed its decision. Read the updated story here.
Vanity license plates have a way of sparking controversy, especially when they contain words or themes that critics see as unpalatable.
The latest example comes from New Jersey, where David Silverman, president of American Atheists, a church-state separatist group, recently requested a plate that reads “ATHE1ST” (the “i” in this case is the number one, as “ATHEIST” was reportedly already taken). But, according to Silverman, his request was denied by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (NJMVC).
The atheist leader shared a form email with TheBlaze that he received from the state government earlier this week. The brief note informed him that his plate request was denied and that the money he paid for the vanity plate would be returned.
“Reason for Denial: Objectionable or Need Further Clarification,” the email read, in part.
It didn’t take Silverman long to share the NJMVC’s response, as he took to Twitter to explain the scenario to his fellow secular activists, writing, “My vanity “ATHEIST” license plate was just refused by the state. Reason: It’s offensive.”
In an interview with TheBlaze on Wednesday, Silverman said that he wasn’t satisfied with the rejection, so he decided to reach out to the commission to ask why, exactly, his proposed plate was being dismissed as offensive.
“I called them and the person told me that it was considered objectionable, because it was offensive and that I could appeal the decision,” he said.
Silverman wasted no time in composing a letter appealing the decision and explaining why the license plate shouldn’t be viewed as offensive (he also told TheBlaze that he didn’t see the reasoning behind stopping him from having the plate, seeing as someone else has already registered ATHEIST).
“‘Religious Freedom’ includes the ability to decline religion; ‘Free Speech’ means we can speak our minds, even when we say things with which others disagree,” he wrote in the letter. “The First Amendment guarantees both of these rights, which I proudly defend for a living.”
Silverman said that he was frustrated by the fact that the mere word “atheist” would be seen as offensive.
“I sent them pictures of atheists on other license plates in other states,” he told TheBlaze. “I wanted [the NJMVC] to recognize that atheist is not offensive but that it is a common noun.”
When asked what might happen if the state denies his appeal, Silverman said that he isn’t sure what the next step will be. That said, he and his organization don’t plan to drop the issue; a lawsuit could be forthcoming.