Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate

More than a decade ago, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became the first state to approve a “Choose Life” specialty plate. Since then, similar plates have been OK’d in more than two-dozen states.

Supporters view them as a means to mass-market adoption to mothers who might otherwise abort; detractors believe the plates are government-endorsed attacks on abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.

Thanks to North Carolina House Bill 289, passed earlier this year by a Republican-dominated state General Assembly and signed into law by avowedly pro-choice Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, motorists around North Carolina can now sport the “Choose Life” message on a specialty license plate.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was among Democrats who voted against the bill, introduced by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion. Gillespie was out of the country last week; a message left at his home went unreturned by press time Tuesday.

Rapp described Gillespie’s bill as “crafty,” one that satisfied several conservative goals and ambitions: “Choose Life” plates were approved, and by adding groups to the bill such as the Boy Scouts, Fox Hunting and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Democrats such as Rapp who stood in opposition can, in upcoming elections, be painted as “against Boy Scouts,” apple pie and the American flag, the veteran lawmaker said.

“We have, historically, not let issue plates be issued,” Rapp said. “We didn’t want North Carolina cars to become rolling billboards for political issues.”

Drivers can opt for the “Choose Life” plates for a $25 extra annual fee. Nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers opposed to abortion get $15 from each plate sold.

As part of House Bill 289, started in 2015, state specialty plates — including the “Choose Life” plates — must all change to meet a uniform template approved by various law enforcement agencies, including the state Highway Patrol.

Therein lies the next “crafty” machination of state Republicans, according to Rapp. Law enforcement’s concerns were truly legitimate, he said, “and there was a public safety issue, and true cause for concern.”

The new law will gut the attractive full-color plate designs and instead relegate a logo for the organization to one corner of the plate, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain. There are 216 specialty plates, but fewer than 30 boast the full-color designs such as Friends of the Smokies.

But in the debate, the particularly popular specialty plates such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway plates, “were held hostage over whether to let the right-to-life plates be in the list of specialty plates,” Rapp said.

“It is a much bigger issue than just GSMNP plates and Blue Ridge Parkway plates,” Rapp said of the behind-the-scenes political fight over what messages should and should not be allowed on license plates.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, agreed. He said that Republicans efforts to get the Choose Life plates have potentially come at the steep cost of the public’s support for good causes such as the Smokies and the parkway.

“That money (raised) really helps these organizations,” Haire said.

Rapp believes there is a solution, though whether he can get it through the Republican-dominated House is debatable. Rapp wants certain groups, particularly the Friends of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, exempted from the new rules. That would allow the nonprofits to continue marketing the full-colored plates used now.

“They helped to get this whole thing started to begin with,” Rapp said, “and I think they should get some preferential treatment. We’ve got to try to find a way around this — that’s a huge revenue source for these groups during these times of revenue cuts, and they need these sources of revenue more than ever.”

The political slugfest that took place over House Bill 289, Republicans thwarted efforts by Democrats to, in response to the Choose Life plates, add a license plate with the abortion rights message “Respect Choice.”

In September, The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking the specialty license plate supporting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit alleges that North Carolina is engaging in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment by allowing pro-life but not pro-choice license plates.

— By Quintin Ellison


Existing full-colored specialty plates

• Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

• Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

• Friends of the Appalachian Trail

• NC Coastal Federation

• In God We Trust

• Stock Car Racing Theme

• Buddy Pelletier Surfing Foundation

• Guilford Battleground Company

• National Wild Turkey Federation

• North Carolina Aquarium Society

• First in Forestry

• North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation

• N.C. Trout Unlimited

• Ducks Unlimited

• Lung Cancer Research

• N.C. State Parks

• Support Our Troops

• U.S. Equine Rescue League

• Fox Hunting

• Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina

• Home Care and Hospice

• N.C. Tennis Foundation

• AIDS Awareness


Newly approved full-colored specialty plates:

• Donate Life

• Farmland Preservation

• Travel and Tourism

• Battle of Kings Mountain

• N.C. Civil War

• North Carolina Zoological Society

• United States Service Academy

• Carolina Raptor Center

• Carolinas Credit Union Foundation

• North Carolina State Flag

• N.C. Mining

• Coastal Land Trust


• Choose Life

• N.C. Green Industry Council

• N.C. Horse Council

• Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center

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