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Abortion Foes Push for License Plates

Americans use specialty license plates as mobile billboards for all kinds of causes, but in New Jersey, New York and Illinois, motorists can't use the forum to voice their stand on the abortion debate.

Efforts to secure "Choose Life" license plates have hit roadblocks in each state, and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this month not to take up an appeal from Illinois abortion opponents sets the stage for continued state-by-state legal maneuvers.

Choose Life supporters argue this is a recurring test of First Amendment rights.

"It's the definition of free speech," says Elizabeth Rex, president of the New York-based Children First Foundation which is pressing the matter in New York and New Jersey. Efforts by Rex's group to proposed plates supporting adoption were rejected by the two states for being inappropriate messages for plates.

"We are free to speak whether what we say is controversial or not," Rex argues.

Groups that oppose abortion have won approval for "Choose Life" plates in 24 states, most recently in Delaware, New Mexico and North Dakota, according to Florida-based Choose Life Inc.

Lawsuits have been successful in half a dozen states, including Missouri and Arizona where lengthy legal proceedings resulted in victories the past two years, says Russ Amerling, national publicity coordinator for Choose Life.

Before the Illinois case, the Supreme Court had also declined to hear cases involving battles in Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee, Amerling says.

Five U.S. Circuit Courts have ruled on the matter, each coming to different conclusions, says Thomas Brechja, president of the Thomas More Society, a law center that opposes abortion.

"It is ripe for hearing," says Brechja, who thinks the Supreme Court should take up the issue. "There has been so much litigation all over the country."

The barricade to the Illinois plate is a federal appellate court's ruling that favored the state secretary of State's decision to keep the abortion debate off license plates.

"License plates are not the place to have a thoughtful conversation about reproductive rights," says Steve Trombley, president of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

Planned Parenthood has objected to the plates in numerous states for varying reasons. In some cases, legislatures approved a Choose Life plate but rejected a Choice plate, Trombley says. In addition, the plates typically raise funds for crisis pregnancy centers that the organization says provide "medically inaccurate and misleading information."

Bruno reports for the Daily Record in Morris County, N.J.

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