New Jersey allows “Atheist” vanity plate after public outcry over ban
The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission has reversed its decision to deny an application for a customized license plate that says “ATHE1ST”, claiming that a clerk exceeded her authority by calling it offensive.
David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said the MVC rejected his request for an “ATHE1ST” plate, sending a letter that called the term “objectionable.” When Silverman tried to clarify what this meant, an employee allegedly told him that the proposed license plate was “offensive.”
The rejection drew significant media attention and angered the American Atheists, who called it a discriminatory practice.
“’Atheist’ is not an offensive or objectionable word anymore than the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is,” Silverman told the Religion News Service. “It is a common noun, it is in the dictionary and it is not only allowed in multiple other states, the word is used on dog tags for the US government. It is who and what I am.”
American Atheists public relations director David Muscato posted news of the rejection on Reddit, where it garnered thousands of “upvotes” and quickly became one of the most popular posts.
“On Tuesday night, this went up on Reddit and [Silverman] tweeted about it and then Richard Dawkins re-tweeted it and it just took off,” Muscato told the Raw Story.
Silverman filed an appeal with the MVC, and on Wednesday afternoon, he was notified that the state of New Jersey reversed its ruling and would allow the “ATHE1ST” license plate. MVC Spokeswoman Elyse Coffey blamed the initial decision on a clerical error, arguing that a clerk exceeded her authority by calling the proposed plate offensive.
Customized license plates with offensive language are prohibited in the state of New Jersey, but Coffey said the MVC concluded there was “nothing offensive” about the word atheist. The state issued a previous license plate that spelled out “ATHEIST” with an “I” instead of a “1”, but that license plate has been retired and now hangs in Silverman’s office.
The MVC’s reversal is a victory for Atheists and non-believers, and comes just days after a self-proclaimed ‘Pastafarian’ wore a pasta strainer on his head for his driver’s license photo. Eddie Castillo, a Texas Tech student, persuaded state officials to let him wear the pasta strainer in his photo, claiming that he worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Pastafarianism is widely recognized as a parody religion, with ‘believers’ opposing the teaching of creationism.
“I don’t know how aware you are of the religion that I was trying to talk to you about this morning, but it’s Pastafarianism,” Castillo said in a video, in which he explains his beliefs to an employee.
Although atheism is more widespread and accepted than Pastafarianism, the two cases represent victories for believers of non-traditional religions who wish to publicly display their principles.