Perhaps you thought the worst story yesterday about a religious minority being persecuted was the revelation that the NYPD has designated entire mosques as terrorist organizations, spying on imams, recording conversations inside the mosques, and parking fake cabs out front filled with surveillance gear. And if you thought that you were totally — no, actually, you were right. But while the world was transfixed by the NYPD/Muslim injustice, one man was fighting his own (non)religious battle against the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
That man was Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists. The AA, founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the ’60s in Austin, Texas and based in New Jersey these days, files lawsuits. Lots and lots of lawsuits. Among other things, they’re currently suing over the proposed cross at the 9/11 memorial, a 10 Commandments monument in Florida, and going after the IRS over the preferential treatment for houses of worship in the tax code.
Silverman himself is a frequent guest on cable news, where he gets yelled at by a variety of talking heads about how godless he is. He’s even been made into a meme, the aptly-named “Are You Serious Face,” after what his facial muscles were doing involuntarily when Bill O’Reilly told him the tides “go in and out” because of… God, we guess? It was a weird moment.
The point is, the AA and Silverman have a pretty high profile. So when he showed up at the New Jersey MVC earlier this week wanting an “ATHEIST” license plate, they probably should have been prepared for what happened when he was denied.
According to AA, Silverman didn’t request the word “ATHEIST,” exactly, because New Jersey has previously approved that one. It’s subsequently been retired; judging by the photo of Silverman posing with it, he seems to have been the one that was using it before. This time, he asked for “ATHE1ST,” and promptly got a nice letter.
“Unfortunately your request must be denied at this time due to the reason(s) stated below,” it informed him. Those reasons? “Objectionable or Need Further Clarification.” Silverman says when he followed up with a call to the MVC, he was told the proposed plate was “offensive.”
You can see where this is going. Silverman wrote an appeal, identifying himself as the AA president, including images of “ATHEIST” plates from around the country, and reminding the MVC, as he put it: “‘Religious Freedom’ includes the ability to decline religion; ‘Free Speech’ means we can speak our minds, even when we say things with which others disagree. The First Amendment guarantees both of these rights, which I proudly defend for a living.”
For good measure, he CC’ed not one, not two, but three lawyers at the bottom of the appeal, two of AA’s counsel and Bruce Afran, a prominent civil rights lawyer based in Jersey.
After presumably peeing their pants for a bit, the MVC reversed their decision and granted the plate. Silverman plans to bring a copy with him to the AA’s upcoming national convention in Salt Lake City, so everyone can pose with it.
We have to say: considering how much the AA loves a good fight, Silverman seems a little disappointed that the MVC went down so quickly.
“Yes, that was an easy one,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “But that’s because they knew American Atheists means business.”
So, rest easy, everybody. If you’re a Muslim New Yorker who’d like to be in your house of worship without the fuzz spying on you, you’re still SOL. But if you find yourself in Jersey and need a vanity plate, justice shall prevail.