New Jersey Rejects Another Atheist License Plate, But Allows a Baptist One

The Motor Vehicles Commission of the state of New Jersey continues its war on nonbelievers!

Well, not so much a “war” as a kind of backward, archaic prejudice. You’ll of course recall the great saga of American Atheists’ Dave Silverman and his battle to exercise his right to wear his atheism on his license plate. After initial refusals to produce his plate, the New Jersey MVC relented, and there was much rejoicing.

But a new gauntlet has been thrown by the Garden State’s regulatory machine. This time, the aggrieved party is one Shannon Morgan, who attempted to get her own godless license plate as such: “8THEIST”

However, as you can see in the screen grab below, Shannon was thwarted.

The decree from the MVC? “Requested plate text is considered objectionable.” That’s right, folks, indicating your atheism on your car is still “objectionable” to the state of New Jersey.

Shannon wondered what might not be considered objectionable by the MVC, so she gave this controversial word a shot, and you can see the results:

Shannon wrote on her Facebook post for this picture, “So apparently I can have THIS plate. This is getting interesting.” Yes it is.

So, in case there was any doubt, it’s not sectarianism or general religious references that are forbidden, but really just atheistic ones.

And here’s something interesting: Shannon had no idea about the Dave Silverman episode when she tried to get her heretical plate. Here’s what she told me:

I honestly assumed “ATHEIST” would have been taken already, so I had the idea to use the 8 for the A. It just popped up and told me it was “objectionable.” I tried again, same thing. Since atheism is my belief system, I figured I would try another belief system, because maybe it just wouldn’t allow any references to such. But “BAPTIST” was accepted. I was really surprised that wasn’t taken already, given how enthusiastic they can be…

I’ve now sent a letter and certified return receipt to the MVC. I told them that I’m sure that this has to be a computer error, and I’ve asked how I can get my plate.

So we’ll see what happens. But it looks like Silverman’s success in getting his atheist plate may have had more to do with his high profile, and the subsequent media shaming the MVC suffered, rather than any kind of change in policy. It was, in other words, a one-off.

Maybe if enough noise is made about this second and totally independent refusal, the MVC will officially change its tune.

(Many thanks to Michael Cluff, hero of this post, for tipping me off.)

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • Al

    Maybe it was considered sexually objectionable as in “ate theist”

    • Artor

      That is objectionable. Theists give me indigestion.

      • Castilliano

        Which is why we atheists eat so many babies.
        Because, as you know, babies all start as nonbelievers.

        • Guest

          It actually accepted “8BABIES”, but then people would think I was the Octomom.

    • duke_of_omnium

      Or even cannibalistic. The content is just vague enough that it might get flagged. Heck, maybe they have an algorithm to reject all license plates that begin with the numeral 8

      • Robster

        Yet being a Jesus eating Christian is quite OK?

        • duke_of_omnium

          Actually, I’d love to know if they’d reject “8JESUS.”

  • G Wiz

    She might try 8heist

    • Shannon Morgan

      Tried it, it accepted it, however, it males me look like I am a criminal.

  • DesertSun59

    Good for Silverman for INSISTING that the State stay out of her personal business.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Based on that screenshot, it looks like the result was immediate, not that she got a later rejection. That would indicate there’s an algorithm at play. My inclination would be to try other words that start with ’8′. Maybe thy’re trying to forestall ‘ate’ phrases?

    I would love it if anyone in NJ could play with the system and work out a pattern as to what exactly is getting rejected.

    • allein

      I just went to the page but the application link isn’t working for me for some reason. Also it requires you to fill out the whole application including driver’s licence # and social security before you can design your plate, which I’m not all that inclined to do.

    • badgerchild

      There is a list of objectionable phrases; I remember having seen it. Someone posted the lists for several states. It’s not an algorithm.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Yes, there’s a list. But honestly, do you think ’8THEIST’ is not it? I sure don’t. Especially after what happened with Silverman. “Mea Culpa, our fault, here’s your plate”.

        In light of the Costco-Bible story next thread, “Let me add, when atheists are constantly outraged by fake controversies, we look foolish and have no credibility to speak into real issues.”

        I don’t see sufficient evidence yet that this is anything worth getting worked up over.

        • HollowGolem

          Because it’s symptomatic of widely-held societal bias. It’s down on the list, and there are much more -pressing- issues, but it’s not like this one isn’t an issue at all.

    • James Stevenson

      Perhaps in this case the objectionable world was ‘theist’… and you translate ’8′ as ‘hate’?… really trying pointlessly hard here to come up with something.

    • Shiori_hime

      They may have set the algorithm to try to avoid Neo-Nazi or white supremacist hate speech or something along those lines. Though if that’s what they’re doing I would say they’re a bit off the mark. My understanding is that 8 rarely appears by itself — it’s usually in combination with other numbers, and I have a hard time believing that randomly generated NJ license plates never ever contain those number combinations.

      • allein

        I’ve seen one that included the letters WTF.

  • Marc

    Atheist is a belief system? /confused

    • Stev84

      For legal purposes it is actually.

    • Kellen Connor

      Well, a lack-of-belief system, anyway. I know, I’m an atheist and the semantics confuse even me sometimes.

      • fjpor

        Yes, Kellen, lack-of-belief is better because that is what it is for us..

    • The_Countess

      in the same way that none is a number of kids you can have.

      • Guest

        Then yes?

  • Peter Mason

    Try 8BABIES

    • Shannon Morgan

      It accepts “8BABIES”, but I didn’t order it for fear of being confused with the Octomom.

      • Jim Jones

        How about CATLICK ??

  • http://cherryteresa.com/ CherryTeresa

    I’ll be looking out to see if she gets a response and what they have to say.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    “Requested plate text is considered objectionable.”

    Notice the passive phrasing, eliminating the need for a noun or pronoun to own the objection. Considered objectionable by WHOM? The MVC isn’t going to stand up courageously and say “WE consider this objectionable.”

    I think this is an indication of the passive-aggressive attitude that Shannon will encounter at every step. It’s going to be just like so many college administrations that drag their feet when students apply for an on-campus atheist group. She was wise to send her letter with a certified return receipt, so they can’t claim that they never received it. Nevertheless, they’ll stall, they’ll forget, they’ll lose her letters and emails, and only after repeated prodding they’ll finally send her an opaque and meaningless response essentially repeating “It is considered objectionable” without any elaboration about why, on and on, hoping that she either gives up or dies of old age.

    Keep up the pressure, document and date everything you do, and every response you get in person at the MVC, on the phone, by email, and by mail. DON’T patiently wait many days between each step you take. They will wait as long as they think they can get away with it, and that’s up to how long you are willing to wait between your escalating demands. Let them know that you’re documenting everything they do and how long they take.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Ah, a downvote. Since voting my comment down anonymously without making any comment about why is another chickenshit thing to do, I wonder if the down-voter is an employee of the MVC, or simply another bigot who finds atheists’ mere existence to be “objectionable,” and wants to stifle our right to even declare that we are here.

      Speak up or fuck off.

      • Leah

        I didn’t do it (I swear!!) but does every blog down-vote require such a vehement response? If so, then hot damn! I got some ranting to attend to!

        • 3lemenope

          Honestly, most likely is someone saw a post complaining about passive-aggressive behavior, and down-voted it without comment to be ironic.

          (I didn’t do it either.)

        • Noelle

          Did you just get down voted for questioning the system of down voting the down voters?

          • Leah

            I consider my down-vote a badge of honor.

            • FTP_LTR

              Downvoted for trying to subvert the down-vote system.

          • formerlywhatithink

            Downvoteception.

      • Aaron Arm

        I downvoted you only because you got enraged and indignant over a downvote. Come on, man. Take a breather.

        • tsig

          I down voted you because you down voted some one for objecting to downvoting.

          :) :]

      • Drew M.

        I changed my upvote to a downvote because of this reply. Oh, I downvoted this one too, in case you’re trying to track down the three it currently has.

        I love what you usually write, but you’re being immature here. Downvotes don’t mean a damned thing; you really shouldn’t stress out over them.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          You and Aaron are right. I need to take a break.

      • CanadianNihilist

        I just down voted your comment (they reply as I up voted your original one) because instead of accepting that some people disagree with you, and moving on, knowing people might not want to get into a drawn out argument, you took the time to bitch about it in a reply to yourself.
        I also found your response to be immature considering you only got a few down votes. No one spat in your face and told you to “go fuck your mother.” That would have warranted the kind of response you gave.

    • Sam Mdws

      I wasn’t the first one to down-vote, so not the target of your first response, but I have down voted your comment. Here’s why:

      It is incredibly presumptive at this point to think that the MVC intentionally denied this plate for saying atheist. I do not live in New Jersey and have never gotten a plate personalized, but from the screen shot it appears that this was rejected by an automated webpage with a script. Having minor experience with computer coding, I know that it is possible to create rules for the program to filter out objectionable inputs (your “butt”s and “fucks”). Occam’s razor and common sense suggests this was LIKELY the script being too sensitive and rejecting something that is not objectionable. The woman tried “BAPTIST” but that does not have the same characteristics of “8THEIST” which is alphanumeric. It is possible that adding 8 is filtered because it sounds like “ate” which might be used in a vulgar context.

      It is not helpful to go screaming “persecution” at the drop of a hat. This was denied by a computer, not a person at the MVC who might be able to override the denial. Shannon said it herself, “I’ve now sent a letter and certified return receipt to the MVC. I told them that I’m sure that this has to be a computer error, and I’ve asked how I can get my plate.”

      Overall your comment was a gross over reaction and this entire post is making a storm in a tea cup. Update us when an official at the MVC denies this plate because atheism is objectionable. Till then GTFO.

      • Rich Rodgers

        Except that people have tried that. Your initial point is correct, but we have a few more points of data that need fed in to your Occomatron.

      • Baffled By Faith

        Except, as Rich Rogers mentioned, there are other things people have tried that go through, and this is the second post about an Atheist plate being denied. Since the first was simply the word “atheist” it’s clear that in that instance there was no alphanumeric that the coding system might have been blocking.

        To my mind, there is most likely a dictionary of words that are considered objectionable and Atheist (and any variety of it) are on that list. I’ve done coding too and it’s certainly easier to code something with a reference list than coding up some algorithm to try to pick up anything that might be considered objectionable, particularly as this is most likely just a first pass and anything that makes it passed the website will likely be vetted by a desk clerk.

        UPDATE: I stand corrected, someone else said that the previous person had tried to get Athe1st, which is alphanumeric. Still, I’m thinking it’s more likely a list than an algorithm.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          It’s probably both. I’m sure there are some sequences that are not permitted, like FUCK and SHIT e.g. and probably ’1′ for ‘I’, so ‘SH1T’. I wonder if their back-end code would be available via FOI request.

          Adding to the confusion is that David Silverman’s application was rejected after the fact, in an email. What I’m not clear on is if Silverman applied via mail, or via the web.

          http://news.atheists.org/2013/08/28/american-atheists-president-david-silverman-files-appeal-for-denied-custom-new-jersey-athe1st-license-plate/

          If Silverman’s rejection was via the mail, then it could be either that someone had to type it in to get the auto-rejection, or a human being a dumb jerk rejected it. Of course the NJ DMV doesn’t clarify which.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Update:

            Asked AA about it and David Silverman said “I applied via the Web site and got the same response. I then called the dmv and they told me that it was offensive. I think if you call the dmv now it will be passed.”

            It does look like they have web code that either by list or algorithm or combination is auto-rejecting atheist-y plates. And at some level people agreeing or not thinking about it. And at some upper level some sanity that they can’t reject atheist plates.

            At this point I think the focus should be that they need to fix their web code so that atheists don’t have to go through extra hoops to get their plates. It’s not “equal protection under the law” if one group consistently faces more hurdles, small as those hurdles are.

  • LutherW

    ATHE1ST or ATHEI5T would be good tests too.

    • EuropeanCommunist

      I believe the former has already been taken, after much struggle, by Dave Silverman.

  • fjpor

    OK – gang. Time for a little “equal justice under the law” thang!!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

    this is highly annoying and unfair. however, and i’m sure this is true in NJ as well as the states where i’ve gotten plates, the laws relating to what they can restrict are pretty byzantine. Silverman proves you can beat city hall, as it were, and i hope she goes for it as well and follows Richard’s sound advice. but i’m not terribly surprised. and who really knows, except those of us who work for the NJ office that determines these things, why this happened? our immediate reaction is to get upset about discrimination, but i want to hear what they eventually tell her. “8″ is a fun number to play with on a license plate. but it can be used in some truly controversial phrases.

  • Corwin1681

    Looks like they didn’t learn what equality means the first time, I think its time to fire some people.

  • Hemsley Carmichael

    They object to people who worship 8 gods? One god? Okay, but 8? That’s just weird. “Rejected!”

  • Aaron

    In Nebraska ‘ATHEIST’ comes up unavailable yet ’8THEIST’ appears available and okay.

    • Aaron

      And words like the ‘F’ bomb do show up as Objectionable.

  • Whitney Kelly

    My husband works for njmvc. Sorry but I don’t believe this was some kind of injustice. I believe the “heist” part is what the system picked up on.

    • Patrick

      This should be the top comment.

    • TCC

      Shannon above said that “8HEIST” was accepted by the system.

    • Shannon Morgan

      8HEIST worked.

    • Michael “X” Dofang

      I hope you’re right. Another competing hypothesis is that they didn’t purge the reject list after Dave Silverman’s plate was instated.

  • http://www.shockandblog.com/ Jay McHue

    This post is hilarious when contrasted with the Costco Bibles one.

  • L.Long

    How about trying…..
    4THE15T
    I enjoy trying to figure out the meaning of odd plates.
    If I wasted money on plates I would try the above example
    as most people would not know what it said,

    • Rafael

      Why not ZOIDBRG?

  • Cunty

    Is “Cunty” objectionable?

  • Kevin Boston
  • Tobias 27772

    Could someone come up with an 8 character way to request “objectionable” ??

  • Sue Blue

    I wonder if “FUQ” would get through. I had a license plate in Washington State that had this series of letters (the state at the time used a 3-letter, 3-number combo on plates) on my plate for years simply as a consequence of the random computer-generated letter-number combination. I got a lot of juvenile mileage out of its phonetic pronunciation as a word, and I have to say it sure helped me remember my plate when I had to write it down somewhere.

  • Lark62

    8THEIST is available in Virginia. ATHEIST was already taken

  • Chosen One

    It must be a sign from God!!


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