Having been tagged an atheist, Arnold L. Via doesn't believe in giving up the label.

The retired merchant seaman and avowed nonbeliever has displayed the Virginia license plate "ATH-EST" on his 1980 Cadillac in rural Augusta County since the state's Division of Motor Vehicles blessed the tag in 1982.

But after someone complained that the plates were offensive, the DMV wrote to Via and told him to give them up. Via refused. A few days before the state's June 27 deadline, Via, with a lawyer's help, won a temporary injunction forcing Richmond to keep its hands off the tags for now.

A hearing on a permanent injunction is scheduled for Sept. 3 in Augusta County Circuit Court in Staunton.

"There shouldn't be any controversy, really," Via, a 60-year-old bachelor and state chapter president of American Atheists, said yesterday from his home in Grottoes, in the Shenandoah Valley.

"They instituted this program to benefit the citizen, I presume," he said.

Instead, the spat could blossom into a serious legal challenge over how Virginia officials administer their so-called "communi-plate" system, a vanity tag program that rates third in the nation in percentage of users and rakes in $3.5 million in annual revenues.

"We want to know exactly when the state established its policy on the content of the messages ," said attorney H. Watkins Ellerson III of Orange, Va., who represents Via. "We want to know who authorized it. We want to know, did they publish a written policy?"

Ellerson and Via contend the program violates principles of religious freedom and free speech guaranteed by the Virginia constitution. The DMV's attempt to revoke Via's plates because of their content is an "unwarranted motivation," said Ellerson.

Via and his lawyer also said they have been told that the DMV has issued other tags with arguably religious content: SAVED, DEACON, CLERGY and XMAS, for example.

True, said DMV spokeswoman Paula Kripaitis-Neely yesterday, although division policy prohibits references to a deity and ostensibly, in Via's case, nondeity. The division, according to Kripaitis-Neely, receives about 9,000 communi-plate requests a month.

"We're doing a good job to catch most of them," she said. "When we get a complaint, we have to ask people to give the plates up . . . . Most people are cooperative."

If not, she said, "We will go take them off the car if we have to . . . . They just can't have that plate. It's yours until we tell you you have to turn it in." The name of the complainant is kept secret.

Kripaitis-Neely said unacceptable messages consist mainly of some 15,000 combinations of letters kicked out by computer software.

Included, she said, are racial and ethnic slurs, references to deity, obscenities, drug terminology and phrases that "spell out something backwards" that might be objectionable.

In 1982, the DMV rejected Via's first choice, NO GOD, and his second, DOG GOD. When he asked for ATH-EST, he said the local DMV office told him the phrase was unavailable. Via immediately went to the top -- the division's offices in Richmond -- where the tags were approved.

Via, who circled the globe twice in his Merchant Marine days, has attracted a certain notoriety for his activities on behalf of the atheist cause. He claims to own the country's only atheist graveyard -- the American Atheist Infinite Cemetery. It takes up 1 1/2 acres of his 9 1/2-acre spread in Grottoes.

The graveyard's only occupant is a Virginia inmate who died in 1983. "I've got room for quite a few little bodies, especially if I stand 'em up," Via said yesterday.

Via also announced this week that he plans to open an atheist school in October in Grottoes.

Via has helped spread the atheist message, too, in prisons. "He attempts to reach inmates who don't want to go to Christian acting school before their parole hearings," said Ellerson, his lawyer. "He's had some success persuading the parole board to disregard religious conversion as grounds for parole."

Via said yesterday that he has seldom been harassed because of his convictions, nothing "vindictive or abusive," although he got a lot of calls after he buried the inmate out back. He had to get an unlisted number, he said.

"It was consuming a lot of my time. . . . The callers wanted, like me, to do all the talking and convert me on the telephone."