Commentary
11:11 am
Tue January 31, 2012

How about this license plate: RU Nuts?

We’ve got a few serious problems in this state, from the fact that we lost almost a million jobs in the past decade to the inconvenient truth that higher education has become both essential for all and highly unaffordable for a large percentage of us.

Throw in that our largest city is quivering on the brink of state takeover and the Asian carp threat, and you might conclude that our lawmakers had more than enough to keep them busy without veering off into divisive distractions.

However, you’d be wrong. There’s now a move to authorize an anti-abortion license plate that would say “Choose Life.” Those wanting this plate would be charged extra, and that money would be funneled by the state to an anti-abortion group called Choose Life Michigan, which is affiliated with the powerful anti-abortion lobby Right-to-Life. Now, I can think of many reasons why this would be dead wrong, regardless of how you feel about abortion.

For one thing, it is clearly unconstitutional. Choose Life Michigan, like its parent group, is pushing an overtly religious message. Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly affirmed that we are supposed to have a rigorous separation of church and state.

For another, it sets an awful precedent. The main sponsor of this bill, Republican State Senator Patrick Colbeck of the Wayne County suburb of Canton Township, is a self-identified member of the Tea Party movement. I would bet anything that he’d oppose a companion license plate that said "UNION YES" which channeled money to unions representing state employees.

But if you allow one, there is no way that you can’t allow the other. There’s also something undignified and improper about using our car registration as a cheap billboard.

Years ago, car license plates were merely a form of identification: AB 1234. Then, at some point, someone figured out the state could make a profit on vanity plates. Soon, if I had money to waste, I could get a plate saying "JACK’S CAR." Another Jack might get one saying "BIG J." Before long, state workers were busy trying to prevent people from sneaking risqué slogans onto them. I presume these were people without a hobby. Eventually, Lansing authorized license plates that would raise money for our universities, and we were headed down the slippery slope.

This issue has been around for a long time. Nearly 20 years ago, I did a story for the New York Times about a Michigan woman who had successfully applied for a plate that said "4 RU486," the so-called morning-after pill. The woman ran an abortion clinic, so this was in a sense a form of advertising.

The anti-abortion crowd was up in arms over this, and the state was going to recall the plate. Then it had discovered they’d issued one that said "PROLIFE." So they let her keep it, but vowed to be more careful in the future. So here’s a sensible solution: All of us are free to donate to any cause we like, and even to slap on a bumper sticker promoting it. But license plates should be just that, and no more. Plain old non-political license plates.

Now that I’ve straightened that out, let’s get our lawmakers back to the very real problems we elected them to solve.