Kentucky denies atheist request for 'IM GOD' license plates

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — An atheist's request to say "IM GOD" on his license plate was denied by the state of Kentucky, which said it might distract other drivers, could spark confrontations and would be in bad taste.

Bennie L. Hart says that by driving around with the "IM GOD" message, he simply wants to spread his views about religion — that it's impossible to disprove anyone's claim to being "God."

Besides, Hart says, he had the same plate for a dozen years when he lived in Ohio, without causing any problems.

Hart sued Kentucky's transportation secretary, Greg Thomas, on Tuesday on free speech grounds, asking a federal judge in Frankfort to strike down some Kentucky laws and rules for personalized plates.

"Under the First Amendment, government officials do not have the authority to censor messages simply because they dislike them," said William Sharp, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which helped file the lawsuit. "And in this instance, personalized license plates are a form of individual speech equally deserving of First Amendment protection."

State Transportation Cabinet spokesman Ryan Watts said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Hart, who moved to Kenton County in northern Kentucky in February, intends to reapply for the "IM GOD" plate, his suit says.

When Hart was first turned down in March for the "IM GOD" plate, an administrative branch manager for Kentucky's Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing cited state law and regulations forbidding vulgar or obscene personalized plates, the suit says. That characterization is "demeaning" to Hart and his views and amounts to censorship, the suit says.

"I simply want the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate, just as any other driver," Hart said in an ACLU release Tuesday. "There is nothing 'obscene or vulgar' about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation."

In April, Hart says state officials gave other reasons for their denial: that it wasn't in good taste, might distract other drivers and potentially spark confrontations.

According to the lawsuit, state officials indicated their denial was backed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Texas' refusal to issue a license plate bearing the Confederate battle flag.

The court said in the 5-4 ruling that Texas can limit the content of license plates because they are state property and not the equivalent of bumper stickers. The Sons of Confederate Veterans said their free speech rights should include a Texas plate bearing its logo with the battle flag. A state board rejected it over concerns that the license plate would offend many Texans.

"That case did not decide the question here, and that is whether or not personalized plates are government or individual speech," Sharp said in an interview Tuesday. "And we think ... the answer is that it is in fact individual speech."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is also assisting in pressing Hart's case.