Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent a lawsuit over special anti-abortion license plates proposed for North Carolina back to an appellate court for a new hearing.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the "Choose Life" plates were unconstitutional because North Carolina doesn't offer similar plates supporting abortion rights. The judges said the proposed plates represent "blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment."
After North Carolina legislative leaders appealed, the Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit decision and ordered the lower court to take another look at the lawsuit in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling in a Texas license plate case.
In that case, the high court ruled that Texas could refuse to issue plates bearing the Confederate battle flag without violating anyone's free-speech rights.
"The First Amendment does not allow groups like the ACLU to suppress a state’s positive message just because the state does not also simultaneously approve a conflicting negative message," Steven Aden, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that backed the appeal of the 4th Circuit ruling, said in a statement. "Citizens of North Carolina have the freedom to promote messages on their vehicles that their legislature has expressly adopted through license plate legislation."
North Carolina lawmakers authorized the "Choose Life" plate in 2011, with a portion of the proceeds from sales of the plates earmarked for a nonprofit that supports crisis pregnancy centers. The law prohibited money from the plates from going to any group that promoted abortion.
Meanwhile, lawmakers defeated various amendments to the bill that created the "Choose Life" plate that would have also authorized plates that would have stated “Trust Women. Respect Choice” or “Respect Choice.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over the "Choose Life" plates, and a federal judge blocked them from ever being issued.
Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court decision.
"This case has always been about more than specialty license plates; it asks whether the government should be allowed to provide a platform to one side of a controversial issue while silencing the other," Brook said in an email to WRAL News. "The court’s decision could allow states to censor private speech and discriminate against citizens who hold views that are different from the government’s. The General Assembly should do the right thing and allow citizens on both sides of the debate to purchase specialty plates supporting their views."