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Passing the Plate

Possibly coming soon to a county tax assessor-collector near you

The specialty license tags issued by the Texas Department of Transportation are a benign bunch really, offering little to raise the hackles of citizens on either end of the political spectrum. After all, how much moral outrage can you muster over an "Animal Friendly" plate that features a childlike drawing of a smiling dog and cat and raises money for spay and neutering programs? Or the ever-popular "Keep Texas Wild" plate that renders a crawling horned "toad" lizard and dedicates $20 of its issuance fee to state conservation efforts? But if social conservatives in the Legislature have their way, the department will be issuing specialty license tags that are earmarked for controversy because they will weigh in heavily on the side of anti-choice forces in the abortion debate.

It would seem as though license tags bearing the slogan "Choose Life" and designed with the likeness of happy-faced children (Florida tags) or a baby-delivering stork (Louisiana) might be an inconsequential sideshow in a cultural war embedded with such hot-button issues as partial-birth abortions and clinic protests. But these mobile billboards are considered a top legislative priority for pro-life organizations in Texas partly because they enable the movement to market its message in an upbeat, inoffensive manner by contending the tags are not anti-abortion but rather pro-adoption. "It's [the Texas bill] nice and positive because it promotes adoption by raising revenue for any charitable organization that counsels pregnant women who are considering abortion and assists them with their material needs," says Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life.

Pro-choice advocates find this position as untenable as they do disingenuous. Under the proposed legislation, revenue raised by the tags is forbidden from going to an abortion provider or any organization referring to or affiliated with one. "That leaves pregnancy crisis centers whose primary purpose is not to encourage adoption but to discourage abortion," says Danielle Tierney, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Texas Capitol Region. "If they really wanted to promote adoption, they could use language like 'Adopt a Child' or 'Support Adoption.'"

But why compromise on what has essentially become a successful nationwide branding strategy? Since the idea took root in Florida in 1999, "Choose Life" tags have generated more that $1.6 million in revenue from more than 37,000 Florida vehicles. Eight other states have enacted similar legislation, and there are movements in more than a dozen state legislatures to pass the plates. During the previous session of the Texas Legislature, pro-choice members stalled a similar bill in a House committee. This session, however, "Choose Life" plates may be one beneficiary of the hard right turn the Legislature has taken since Republican victories have given the party control of every branch of state government. That is not to say that pro-choice groups will go down without a fight. In at least three states, they have brought lawsuits to stop the issuance of these plates on complex First Amendment grounds and may do the same if the legislation becomes law in Texas.

Russell Amerling, the national publicity coordinator for Choose Life Inc., which promotes the plates around the country,seems amazed, even a bit outraged that the plates have ignited such controversy. "Why do we have to draw this back into the insolvable debate of pro-life versus pro-choice?" he asks. "The issue for us is that adoption is a better choice than abortion. It's an opportunity for folks to get behind a real solution that gets money to unwed mothers as well as maternity homes and crisis pregnancy centers."

It's the pregnancy crisis centers that pro-choicers disdain. "Typically, they are unlicensed, have no medical staff and are run by volunteers with a religious and political agenda whose goal it is to coerce women into continuing an unwanted pregnancy," Tierney says.

Pojman objects to this characterization and points to safeguards in the proposed Texas statute, which will bring public scrutiny into the grant awarding process, he says, because it will be administered through the Texas Attorney General's Office. "What I like about the process is that it will be very visible, which is a good thing."

Tierney is quick to point out that current Attorney General Greg Abbott is decidedly anti-abortion.

All this raises the question of whether the plates will be able to overcome the legal obstacles to their issuance. Pro-choice organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights are in an ongoing legal battle with the states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, claiming that each violates the First Amendment right to free expression and separation of church and state (using the government as a fund-raiser for faith-based pregnancy crisis centers). Although the results are mixed, pro-choice groups, even after defeat, retool their attacks and sue under a different legal theory. For all sides, the legal issues are just too significant: By creating a "Choose Life" plate and not a pro-choice plate, is the state engaging in "viewpoint discrimination" by providing a forum for the expression of individual views and then preventing one group from using it? Or is the state speaking for itself and expressing the viewpoint of its people through their Legislature?

Pojman would argue the plates are state-sponsored speech. "Certainly the state has the right to promote childbirth over abortion and implement that judgment by the allocation of its funds." The courts, however, have been more inclined to frame the issue as one involving individual speech, with the state providing the platform. "If the Legislature is controlling access to an avenue for expression, it must allow all viewpoints to be expressed," says Simon Heller, the lead attorney representing the Center of Reproductive Rights in the Louisiana case. "If it allows only one viewpoint, that is unconstitutional."

Pro-choice advocates have lost in courts (the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals among them) that have held they lack standing because they never applied for a plate of their own. That might be an empty gesture in Texas, according to state Representative Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat and one of the few members of the state affairs committee to vote against the plate legislation. During the committee hearing, he asked the bill's powerful conservative sponsor, Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, a Burleson Republican, if she would agree to an amendment that would authorize pro-choice license tags as well. "Her answer was a very clear no," he says.

Wohlgemuth did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Villarreal says he finds the legislation particularly troubling in light of the recently passed House budget. "So what are we doing here? Passing an unconstitutional bill that will result in litigation and waste tax dollars in a year when we are balancing the budget on the backs of poor pregnant women and children."

If "Choose Life" becomes the plate of the land--or one of them anyway--the Texas Department of Transportation may long for the day when the most controversial thing it had to worry about was whether its tags truly captured the coloring of the horned toad (brown) or fairly depicted the state fruit of Texas (red grapefruit). "We don't like to take controversial positions," says TxDOT spokesman Roger Polson. "We prefer to remain plate-neutral."


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