Published on HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com (http://hamptonroads.com) Specialty plates touting right to abortion advance to governor
It’s now up to Gov. Bob McDonnell whether Virginia abortion-rights advocates will be able to proclaim their viewpoint on their license plates.
Working under the threat of a free-speech lawsuit from the ACLU, the Senate and House of Delegates agreed Saturday to authorize a specialty plate with the slogan “Trust Women/Respect Choice.” A portion of the proceeds would go to the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood.
The plate was approved 22-15 in the Senate and 64-30 in the House. The measure, SB18, needs the Republican governor’s signature to become law.
Stacey Johnson, a McDonnell spokeswoman, gave an ambiguous response when asked if the governor would sign the bill.
“Virginia has hundreds of specialty license plates that citizens can order,” she said by e-mail. “The governor believes they all should be treated the same by the state. He opposes state funding for abortion services. He will review the final legislation with these principles in mind.”
Last year, the Assembly approved a plate bearing the anti-abortion message “Choose Life.” Profits from the tag go to Heartbeat International, a group that supports pregnancy centers offering alternatives to abortion.
The furor over the abortion- rights message is the latest twist in what began 20 years ago as an innocuous way to raise revenue by letting motorists promote their hobbies, colleges or fraternal organizations on their state tags. Two decades later, the program has become something its founders probably never foresaw: a forum for trading blows in the culture wars and testing fundamental constitutional rights.
The program now offers more than 200 specialty plates promoting everything from white-tailed deer to Jimmy Buffett-loving “Parrotheads.” Last year, it generated $7.6 million for the state and $2.8 million for 52 sponsoring organizations.
The 2009 Assembly veered into more polarizing territory when it approved a plate bearing the anti-abortion message “Choose Life.” Profits from the tag go to Heartbeat International, a group that supports pregnancy centers offering alternatives to abortion.
Some legislators warned at the time that by approving a message on such a contentious issue, the Assembly was inviting a similar request from those on the opposite side.
One of those legislators was Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg. May spoke from experience. In 1999, he sponsored a specialty plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans bearing that group’s logo, which contains a stars-and-bars battle flag. The legislature approved the plate but disallowed the logo, spawning a two-year legal battle that ended with the emotionally freighted flag being restored to the plate by court order.
This year, “What we thought would happen, did,” May said.
Planned Parenthood sought a plate with an abortion-rights slogan, and the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union promised it would sue the state on free-speech grounds if the Assembly didn’t oblige.
The courts have made it clear that once a state starts down the road of allowing motorists to express themselves on their license plates, it must do so in an even-handed way, said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU.
“Specialty plates are a public forum,” Willis said, “and the government can’t discriminate on the basis of viewpoint in a public forum.”
The debate took another twist in the House last month when a bill by Del. Bob Brink, D-Arlington County, authorizing the abortion-rights plate was amended by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County.
The amendment diverted the profits from Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions, to a now-empty state fund for women facing unplanned pregnancies.
The Gilbert amendment “threw us for a loop,” Willis said. But the ACLU regrouped and issued a renewed threat to lawmakers this week: If the amended bill passed, the ACLU would still sue.
The amendment was a “poison pill,” Willis said.
More than 350 people – the number required by law – have submitted prepaid applications for the abortion-rights plate with the expectations that Planned Parenthood would get the profits. Diverting the money to another recipient would nullify those applications, he said, thwarting production of the plate and denying those motorists a forum for their viewpoint.
“This kind of mess is precisely why we have been telling the General Assembly for years to get out of the business of voting on specialty license plates,” Willis said.
Lawmakers heeded the threat. In a House-Senate conference committee created to resolve the issue, House conferees agreed to strip out the Gilbert amendment, restoring the profits to Planned Parenthood.
The deciding vote on the conference committee was cast by May, the delegate who had warned his colleagues they were headed for a constitutional collision.
“We really did open a Pandora’s box,” he said, “and I don’t know how we’ll close it at this point.”
Bill Sizemore, (804) 697-1560, email@example.com 
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