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In Florida, a special state license plate exhorts “Choose Life” in a childlike scrawl, accompanied by cartoon smiling faces of a boy and a girl. In Louisiana, the “Choose Life” plate bears an illustration of a pelican, the state bird, with a baby bundle hanging from its beak. The abortion rights debate has officially taken to the highways in several states, and a number of others are considering getting into the fight by issuing their own “Choose Life” plates. The plates have prompted lawsuits and raised questions about state-sponsored speech and the proper use of taxpayer dollars. Money from sale of the plates is generally earmarked for crisis pregnancy centers where women can learn about adoption but not abortion. THE LATEST ROUND In the latest round, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is expected to rule soon on a preliminary injunction issued by Judge Stanwood Duvall Jr. that blocked the production and distribution of Louisiana’s “Choose Life” plates. Henderson v. Stalder, No. 00-2237-Sec.K. Simon Heller of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York, who argued for the plaintiff, said there are “all kinds of things that people can say on license plates.” But he said there are problems with state-issued “Choose Life” plates. He said they “make government a fund-raiser for the private fight against abortion,” though the right to abortion is the law of the land. Government is not supposed to open a public forum to a single view or one side of an issue, he said. Heller called the plates “a form of propaganda” and said “they provide a way for the anti-choice movement to spread propaganda with the help of government.” Roy Mongrue, a Louisiana assistant attorney general who argued the state’s case in court, called the plaintiff’s position “the ultimate in subterfuge.” “Louisiana has said that it wants women to have choice,” he said. “The other side doesn’t want them to have a choice.” He maintained that the special plates, approved by the state Legislature in 2000, do not represent private speech but rather state speech. “And there is no requirement,” he said, “that the state provide an opposing viewpoint.” Louisiana’s standard license plate refers to the state as a “Sportsman’s Paradise,” Mongrue said. “A lot of animal-rights folks might oppose that, but we don’t have to create a public forum about it.” The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., alleges that Louisiana has created a Choose Life advisory council, consisting of conservative Christian groups, to distribute any funds from the sale of the special plates. Mongrue said state law specifically earmarked the money for groups that provide alternatives to abortion. The center said that in addition to Florida and Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma have passed “Choose Life” plate laws. The Michigan House of Representatives has also done so, but the bill awaits action in the Senate. Except in Florida, where a court challenge was defeated, the plates are all tied up in litigation. So far, the center says, sale of the plates has raised more than $600,000 in Florida. The idea for the plates came in 1996 from Randy Harris, commissioner of Marion County in Ocala, Fla., according to Russ Amerling, publicity coordinator for Choose Life Inc. Amerling said the original intent was simply to raise money for adoptions, not to become embroiled in the abortion controversy. When the first-in-the-country law was passed by the Florida Legislature in 2000, it was vetoed by Gov. Lawton Chiles. That drew national attention, Amerling said, and he was contacted by groups in about 35 states that wanted to produce their own plates. The law passed a second time and it was signed by the new governor, Jeb Bush. It was immediately and unsuccessfully challenged in court by the National Organization for Women, Amerling said. Margie Kelly, director of communications for the center, called the plates “one of many efforts against abortion but no less worrisome.” States that sell the plates are “taking strong action against choice,” she said. “Abortion is legal and we want to keep it that way.” Stephen Crampton, an attorney for the American Family Association in Louisiana, which backed the plates law, called the controversy “a tempest in a teapot.” He said he saw “frustration on the part of the pro-abortion lobby that they couldn’t sell their own plates with their own message.”

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