FRANKFORT — A Kentucky anti-pornography group has sued the state Transportation Cabinet and two legislators for turning down its application to sponsor a specialty license plate with the motto "In God We Trust."
The Louisville-based Reclaim Our Culture Kentuckiana claims in a lawsuit filed in Franklin Circuit Court that the Transportation Cabinet erred in 2008 when it denied its application for the license plate.
In its application, ROCK said it would use money from sales of the plate to raise awareness about harm caused by pornography and the sex industry and to help people hurt or victimized by porn, sexual predators and the sex business.
If approved, the plate would cost $34, but buyers could volunteer to add $10 that would go to ROCK.
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In the cabinet's response, attorney Allan Weiss of Louisville asked the court to dismiss the complaint because ROCK promotes religion, making the organization ineligible to sponsor a specialty license plate under state law.
He noted that ROCK says in its complaint filed March 9 that its purpose is "to defend and sustain the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our country was founded and create a wholesome environment in which all families can flourish."
Weiss also said the complaint is invalid because the cabinet has sovereign immunity from such lawsuits.
Sovereign immunity is the legal theory that government is composed of the people, who cannot sue themselves for damages. Immunity does not apply to all governments, however, and it can be waived.
Mark Brown, a spokesman for the cabinet, declined to comment further about the lawsuit.
The two legislators named as defendants in ROCK's lawsuit have not yet responded to the suit. Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, and Rep. Hubie Collins, D-Wittensville, are chairmen of the legislature's transportation committees.
In interviews this week, Harris said he was sympathetic to ROCK's efforts. Collins said he supports an "In God We Trust" license plate, but thinks it should be sponsored by the state.
"It's a national motto, and I don't think any group should be profiting from it," he said. "ROCK could get a lot of money from it. They wanted the state to sell the plates and they would get a $10 donation. I didn't care for that."
MaryAnn Gramig, director of policy and operations for ROCK, said she did not know how much money her organization might receive from the sale of the license plates.
But she said the state requires a strict auditing process on how the money is used and it could not go toward ROCK's general operating costs.
The money could be significant. Indiana sold more than 1.6 million "In God We Trust" plates in 2007.
Currently, Kentucky offers motorists 18 kinds of specialty plates representing different causes, ranging from breast cancer awareness to spay-neuter pet programs.
Citizens can petition for the plates after obtaining 900 signatures. Drivers must pay extra for them.
ROCK has been trying since November 2007 to sponsor a specialty plate with the national motto.
The cabinet said it turned down ROCK's application in July 2008 because the group promotes a "specific faith or religious position" and because the group did not identify itself on the plate as its sponsor.
ROCK said the cabinet's assertions were incorrect because the group's primary purpose is not the promotion of any specific faith or religion and the cabinet did not give it the opportunity to change the plate's design to identify itself.
The group's lawsuit also said the cabinet's denial is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of religion.
ROCK appealed the cabinet's denial to the legislature's transportation committees, as state law permits.
The Senate Transportation Committee in February passed a resolution overturning the cabinet's denial of ROCK's application. The Senate later approved it, but the House Transportation Committee took no action on the appeal.
However, the House committee did unanimously approve legislation proposing a regular state-issued "In God We Trust" license plate. That measure stalled in the full House.