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PennDOT backtracks on denial of atheist's vanity plate request

| Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, 8:09 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Freedom From Religion Foundation member Jeffrey Prebeg Jr., 32, of Crafton poses next to his car, which sports a number of atheistic bumper stickers, at his Crafton home, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. Prebeg applied for a personalized license plate and was rejected.

PennDOT officials on Thursday reversed a decision to refuse a Crafton man a vanity license plate that speaks to his identity as an atheist, blaming the denial on “an employee error.”

“It should have been approved,” PennDOT spokeswoman Alexis Campbell told the Tribune-Review on Thursday.

“We don't have a stance that we were pushing; it was just an employee error.”

Jeff Prebeg Jr., 32, a heating and cooling unit delivery driver, had submitted requests earlier this month to personalize his Chevy Aveo compact car with one of three options: “NO GOD,' “N0 G0D” (using zeroes) or “Atheist 1.”

On Wednesday, Prebeg received a letter from PennDOT with a bold red line scrawled through all three options and a general explanation that his requests had been denied because they were either “offensive or misleading,” according to state statute.

Prebeg said he was stunned and dismayed — particularly because the state online tool for checking a plate's availability informed him somebody already had claimed the Pennsylvania plate for “Atheist.”

“It's not my intent to hurt or demean anyone of a different religion,” said Prebeg, a member of the Pittsburgh branch of the Center for Inquiry, a New York-based secular humanist organization. “Just as someone getting ‘Jesus' should be protected, someone getting ‘atheist' should be protected as well.”

Prebeg — who recalls facing ridicule from Christian peers after “coming out” as an atheist while a high school junior in Washington County — said that just a few years ago, he might have shrugged off such a denial.

But Prebeg said he happened to be in the midst of a renewed sense of comfort with his nonbelief and passion for secular civil rights. He'd learned about similar legal fights around the nation from speakers who convened in Downtown Pittsburgh on Oct. 7-8 for the 39th annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for keeping government separate from religion.

“It's something that you see all the time, and it's not just limited to this license plate issue. This is not all that different from what (Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk) Kim Davis was doing — having government employees abusing their power to promote their personal religion,” said Andrew Seidel, attorney for the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which wrote a letter to PennDOT challenging the denial on behalf of Prebeg.

“That's the essence of the problem, and we see this at every level of government all over the country.”

Following the attorney's letter and calls from the Trib, PennDOT phoned and mailed a letter to Prebeg on Thursday stating that his request would be approved, Campbell said. She noted that denying a plate based on a religious belief or nonbelief violates departmental policy.

Prebeg, who on Wednesday morning was ready to take the challenge to court if necessary, said he's pleased about the reversal.

“I don't want anyone losing their job or anything of that nature,” Prebeg said. “Hopefully, they can maybe police their employees better about what's acceptable and what isn't acceptable, and make better use of the online function so that if it's unacceptable, it shouldn't show up as available on the website.”

Under federal legal precedent set last year, however, license plates have been deemed “government-speak, so the government controls the message,” said Robert Sedler, constitutional law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. On a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that Texas had the right to deny a specialty license plate requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The proposed plate would have included the image of a Confederate battle flag.

“It's not like a public forum where the government can't discriminate on the basis of content,” Sedler said. “It's up to the state.” He noted departments could set their own internal policies not to discriminate based on religion, and individuals could argue that such refusals violate a state constitution.

New Jersey's Motor Vehicle Division, for instance, settled a similar case in August by paying a woman $75,000 and agreeing to let her use the plate “8THEIST” after rejecting it three years ago.

The law is more clearly on the Freedom From Religion Foundation's side, Sedler said, in legal cases such as the “10 Commandments” being posted on school property in New Kensington , or the right for atheists to lead secular invocations at municipal meetings that open in prayer.

Last year, the foundation received more than 5,000 complaints related to potential violations of the constitutional separation of church and state, about 1,000 of which it pursued through resolution, Seidel said.

The foundation, founded in 1978, has observed an uptick in interest in such cases in recent years.

“What I think is happening is that more people are becoming aware of their rights,” Seidel said. “Overall, there's probably either a steady number of these incidents or a decreasing number; it's just that we hear more and more about them because nonbelievers are less and less willing to take these violations lying down.”

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults identify as someone who follows no religion or describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” the latest Pew Research Center data show. So-called religious “nones” made up almost 56 million American adults in 2014, up from 36.6 million in 2007.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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