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Man triumphs in battle for ‘IM GOD’ license plate in Kentucky

Ben Hart with his “IM GOD” license plates. (Freedom From Religion Foundation)
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Ben Hart says no one can prove he’s not God. And now the state of Kentucky can’t stop the 80-year-old longtime atheist from spelling out the claim — “IM GOD” — on his license plate.

A nearly four-year legal battle over the vanity plate came to an end last week, when a federal judge ordered the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to pay more than $150,000 to the lawyers who represented Hart in court. U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove had previously ruled that the state’s denial of the “IM GOD” vanity plate violated the constitutional right to free speech.

As a result, Hart was finally able to pick up the long-awaited plate and place it on the back of his Jeep.

“I walked out and showed the people in line,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re looking at the world’s most famous license plate.’ ”

Vanity license plates have existed since 1931 and are used as a revenue stream for states, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article covering their history. But sorting out what strings of letters and numbers to allow has proved controversial, turning the 6-by-12 inches of space into a free speech battleground. Generally, courts have allowed states to place restrictions as long as they are viewpoint-neutral.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the state had infringed on a man’s free speech rights when it rejected his application for a license plate reading “COPSLIE,” local media reported. Meanwhile, according to Medium, a Vermont woman has been fighting for years to keep her plate, “SHTHPNS.”

In Hart’s case, he applied to get the “IM GOD” plate in 2016 after moving to Kentucky. He’d had the same message for 12 years while living in Ohio. An atheist from the age of 15, when he began questioning the story of Noah’s Ark and “what kind of God would drown every baby in the world,” Hart said the license plate message has a simple purpose.

“I want people to think,” he said. “That’s the whole point: Think.”

Over the years he had the plate in Ohio, Hart said, he only had a few confrontations. Once, a woman told him he wasn’t God, and he replied that if she proved it, he would give her the $100 bill he’d been “carrying for over 20 years for the first person that can prove I’m not God.” He said he got to keep the money.

Another time, a woman approached him at a gas station and told him, “I’ve always wanted to meet you.”

But Kentucky decided Hart’s requested message was “vulgar or obscene.” Later, the licensing agency argued that it might create distractions or confrontations with other drivers.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU filed the lawsuit on Hart’s behalf. The Transportation Cabinet argued that vanity plates are government speech and convey a “stamp of approval” from the state. The judge rejected that argument, pointing to other plates the agency had approved.

“Under the Transportation Cabinet’s logic, the Commonwealth is not only contradicting itself, but spewing nonsense,” Van Tatenhove wrote in a November order previously reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal. “If the Court finds that vanity plates are government speech, then the Court would also be finding that Kentucky has officially endorsed the words ‘UDDER,’ ‘BOOGR,’ ‘JUICY,’ ‘W8LOSS’ and ‘FATA55.’ ”

He noted that the messages “GODLVS,” “TRYGOD,” “1GOD” and “NOGOD” had all won approval, undermining the state’s argument that Hart’s requested plate could not be approved because of its reference to religion.

The ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation cheered the decision.

“As the court affirmed, the denial of Ben Hart’s choice of a license plate was pure discrimination,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We are delighted that the court realized the bias the state of Kentucky was displaying toward nonbelievers.”

Hart, an ardent believer in the First Amendment, said it was worth the wait, even if, as he put it, “I thought I was going to die before I got it.”

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