A five-year legal battle is over and the ruling is in: the State of North Carolina can now issue specialty license plates bearing the pro-life message “Choose Life.” The 2-to-1 decision issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on March 10 concluded that North Carolina’s “Choose Life” specialty license plates “amount to government speech, and that North Carolina is therefore free to reject license plate designs that convey messages with which it disagrees.” At question was whether the North Carolina General Assembly could authorize the issuance of plates bearing a pro-life message without also authorizing a plate with a conflicting pro-abortion message.
“This is a huge pro-life victory for North Carolina,” said John L. Rustin, president of the NC Family Policy Council. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling is long overdue, putting an end to a legal battle that will not only give pro-life motorists the ability to communicate a life-affirming message on their license tags, but also to provide funds to help save the lives of unborn children in our state.”
North Carolina’s “Choose Life” plates have been locked in a legal battle since 2011, when the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU) filed suit to stop issuance of the plates just a few months after the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing their sale. The ACLU argued that the absence of a license plate expressing a “pro-choice” position on abortion represented “viewpoint discrimination” by the State. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina agreed with the ACLU in a December 2011 decision, as did a divided Fourth Circuit panel in February 2014, prohibiting the State from issuing pro-life specialty license plates unless it also allowed pro-abortion plates.
In July 2014, after Attorney General Roy Cooper refused to appeal the Fourth Circuit ruling, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys representing President Pro Tempore of the NC Senate Phil Berger and then-Speaker of the NC House Thom Tillis filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision. In June 2015, following its ruling in a similar case regarding Texas’ specialty license plates program, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Fourth Circuit decision in North Carolina’s case and ordered the appeals court to reconsider its previous ruling. In its decision on March 10 to reverse that ruling, the Fourth Circuit sent the case back to the district court for summary judgment.
Under the 2011 law authorizing the production of the “Choose Life” specialty license plates, a portion of the money generated by the sale of the plates ($15 of each $25 plate) is earmarked for “nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies that provide pregnancy services that are limited to counseling and/or meeting the physical needs of pregnant women … and shall not be distributed to any agency, organization, business, or other entity that provides, promotes, counsels, or refers for abortion….”
At the time of this writing, NC Family was not certain when the state will begin issuing “Choose Life” plates, but we will provide an update when we determine that timeframe.