JN36TN. Could you tell what JN36TN means if you saw it on a license plate? Does it mean, My name is John, I am 36 and was born in Tennessee? Or does it refer to the Bible's John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Shawn Byrne wanted to put JN36TN on his Vermont vanity license plate. The state law required him to explain what the vanity plate meant, and he wrote that it referred to the biblical text. The state refused his request because the law prohibited license plates that referred to religion or a deity. The Second Circuit wisely invalidated the law as an instance of viewpoint discrimination under the Free Speech Clause. If Byrne had said he was 36-year-old John from Tennessee, the state would have accepted his application.
The other examples given by the court confirm that the law should not have survived constitutional scrutiny. The state had allowed messages such as HARMONY, LOVE, EARTH1, AMFREE, PEACE2U, LOVLIFE, THNKPOS, CARP DM, BEJOYFL, DARE2BU, REJOICE. It rejected SEEKGOD, 1GOD, THE REV, AND KRISHNA, but allowed GEMINI; LIBRA; GENESIS and CREED (because they are musical groups); STJOHN (the U.S. Virgin Island); SINNER, ANGEL1, ANGEL21, ANGEL23, ANGELSC, BUDDHA AND GODDESS (because they were nicknames). The state rejected BVM22 when described as a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary and JMJ1 as a reference to Jesus, Mary, Joseph1. Of course someone named John M. Jones could have qualified for the JMJ1 plate. These examples confirm that the statute favored secular viewpoints over religious viewpoints and violated the First Amendment.
These types of discrimination sometimes persuade people that our society is anti-religious, which then inspires them to put more religion back in the public square. The Texas legislature did something like this in 2007 when it added the words "under God" to the Texas pledge of allegiance and required that the new pledge be recited in public schools. The pledge states: "Honor the Texas flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible."
Although one sponsor of the bill explained that the purpose of the amendment was to honor the religious, Judaeo-Christian roots of the state, another sponsor said that the purpose was to match the language of the Texas pledge to that of the U.S. pledge of allegiance.
Under First Amendment case law, legislation must have a secular purpose. The Fifth Circuit foolishly ruled that adding "under God" to the Texas pledge had the secular purpose of matching the national pledge and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause. Of course the new Texas pledge does not really match the national pledge; it lacks with liberty and justice for all. The Fifth Circuit also concluded that the pledge did not favor religion, endorse religion, or coerce religion.
The Fifth Circuit missed the point. The "under God" pledge favors religion just as much as the license plate law disfavors it. Individuals should be free to speak about their religions--even on their license plates. But the government is not supposed to have a religion. The state is not supposed to put that religion into a state pledge and require individuals to recite their allegiance to it.