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Activists say new license plates violate civil, reproductive rights

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A ``Choose Life'' license plate soon to be available at tag agencies across Oklahoma violates the First Amendment and could undermine a woman's reproductive choices, abortion rights activists say.

Earlier this month, Gov. Frank Keating signed into a law a bill that permitted the sale of the specialty plates as a way of promoting adoption. Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, is the bill's principal author in the House and hopes plates will be available soon after the law takes effect Nov. 1.

For his part, Balkman says the bill represents the First Amendment in its very essence _ the freedom of speech.

``Some people may not like the ``Choose Life'' license plate, but some also may not like the fact that people have NAACP plates or NRA plates,'' said Balkman, who considers himself a strong abortion rights foe. ``No one's forcing you to buy the plates. You're paying for them with your own money.''

The plates can be purchased for $25 by ``anyone who wishes to demonstrate support of organizations that encourage adoption as a positive choice for women with unplanned pregnancies,'' according to the bill.

Twenty dollars from each license plate would go into a fund to be distributed by the Department of Human Services to nonprofit organizations for counseling and other needs of pregnant women.

``By producing plates that are pro-life, the government is authorizing unconstitutional speech by opponents of abortion,'' said Laura Lang, director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. ``A better bill would have offered both pro-life and pro-choice sides equal representation.''

Oklahoma joins four Sunbelt states that have already approved the shiny-yellow plates picturing a smiley-faced boy and girl: Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. ``Choose Life'' is scrawled on the top or bottom of the plate in thick, crayon-looking fashion. Florida rolled out the plates in 2000 and has raised more than $780,000 for pregnancy counseling centers.

Barry Silver, an attorney who represents a variety of groups who have filed a lawsuit over the plates in Florida, calls the law deceptive and fraudulent.

``The funding mechanism allows for money to go to those organizations that don't refer to or discuss abortion,'' said Silver. Plaintiffs in the case include the National Organization of Women. ``Florida shouldn't put its stamp of approval on the anti-choice movement.''

In addition, lawmakers in a dozen states _ from California to West Virginia _ have introduced or have pending ``Choose Life'' license plate legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislators in Denver.

``It's hard to say what the driving force behind it is,'' said NCSL policy specialist Irene Kawanabe. ``It could be the issue itself or that some states want to add to the variety of license plates they offer.''

Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said state-issued license plates are meant to identify cars and trucks, not make political statements.

``It's a politically popular vote lawmakers make for their constituency,'' said Cook, whose ACLU chapter has thrown its support behind civil rights groups presently battling the Louisiana plates law in the courts. ``It's a case of the majority overriding the rights of the minority.''

Balkman saw his Choose Life bill die in a Senate committee earlier in the legislative session. After collecting nearly 1,400 signatures and encouraging citizens to phone and e-mail lawmakers in support of the bill, it was revived on the Senate floor through an amendment offered by Sen. Jim Williamson, R-Tulsa.

Many abortion rights activists also oppose funding nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers through license plate sales because they say doing so could rob women of their right to choose.

``We're concerned that the women who get counseling from centers like these won't be given all of their legal options, including abortion,'' Lang said.

One of the nonprofit groups that stands to benefit from the grants is Birthchoice of Oklahoma, which operates 11 centers statewide on a $370,000 annual budget. Birthchoice opened the first crisis pregnancy center in the state in 1973 and offers free pregnancy tests, counseling, clothing and shelter to pregnant women.

``We're here to offer alternatives to abortion to women who come in here who may or may not be pregnant,'' said Barbara Chishko, the group's executive director. ``Getting the funds (from the license plates) will allow us to keep on what we've been doing.''

Balkman doubts there will be major legal challenges to the ``Choose Life'' plates in Oklahoma.

``Oklahoma is a pro-life state and it's a conservative state,'' Balkman said. ``I don't think see any legal challenges happening.''
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