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"Choose Life" License Plate Case Revived in Louisiana

Opens Challenge to Overall Policy for Issuing Specialty Plates

New Orleans, LA

In an unusual order issued yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit revived a challenge to the constitutionality of Louisiana’s "Choose Life" license plates law by indicating that the case may continue in the trial court if the plaintiffs amend their complaint to "challenge the state's overall policy and practice of issuing specialty license plates." The new order revises a previous order requiring the trial court to dismiss the case in its entirety. The plaintiffs, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, have argued that the State has infringed upon the plaintiff’s First Amendment rights by allowing only one viewpoint on abortion – the anti-choice viewpoint – to be expressed on specialty license plates.

"This is an unexpected but welcome turn of events. Hopefully, we can put an end to the unconstitutional sale of anti-choice license plates," said Simon Heller, Of Counsel with the Center and lead counsel on the case. "These plates are a form of government sponsored, anti-choice propaganda that must be stopped," added Heller.

In August 2000, Judge Duval of the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction preventing distribution of the license plates. On March 29, 2002, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s order. In August 2002, the Fifth Circuit also denied a request for the full 15-member court to rehear the case and denied the Center's petition to block the dismissal of the case until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether to review the case. The petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in December 2002.

Louisiana’s "Choose Life" license plate law mandates that state taxpayer dollars be used to make and distribute the license plates, and subsequent proceeds from the sale of the specialty license plates be deposited into a "Choose Life Fund," which would be made available to qualifying nonprofit organizations.

Motorists who purchase the plates pay a fee above the cost of a standard license plate. The revenue generated from the sale is then funneled to non-profit, anti-abortion organizations, including so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" that often promise comprehensive medical advice and services but deliver anti-abortion propaganda. Any organization that mentions abortion as a neutral option – including counseling, referrals or advertising – is prohibited from receiving any of the funds.

Six states have enacted legislation to create "Choose Life" license plates and are using the proceeds to help fund the distribution of biased medical and anti-choice information.

Plaintiffs in Henderson v. Stalder include Russell J. Henderson, Doreen Keeler, Rabbi Robert H. Loewy and the Greater New Orleans Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. Simon Heller and Priscilla Smith of the Center for Reproductive Rights represent the plaintiffs along with Center cooperating attorney William Rittenberg, of the firm Rittenberg & Samuel in New Orleans.