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Chafee ’75 vetoes pro-life plates

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 said the license plates would violate separation of church and state

City & State Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A bill that would have allowed Rhode Islanders to purchase license plates inscribed with “Choose Life” was vetoed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 in July. Part of the revenue generated by the plates’ sales would have been donated to CareNet, a faith-based pregnancy resource center that advocates against abortion.

Chafee wrote in his veto statement that the bill “compels the state to collect and distribute funds to an organization that advocates a particular religious and political viewpoint,” contradicting the tenet of separation of church and state.

From a legal standpoint, the process for designing license plates in the state should not allow for a pro-life message to be displayed, said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union.

“Rhode Island currently decides what is on specially designed license plates,” not private parties, he said. States like Massachusetts and Connecticut have a system where residents who wish to create a charitable license plate can submit an organization for approval to manufacture the plates on a smaller scale than was proposed in Rhode Island. “The problem arises when the General Assembly approves a license plate for one side of an issue without making sure that other viewpoints are represented,” he said.

“The ‘Choose Life’ license plate would have implied that the state urges people to choose life,” said Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, who voted against the bill. Like Chafee, she said the plates would have violated the separation of church and state because proceeds from purchases would benefit what she called “a quite conservative Christian organization.”

“It would have been a different thing for me if the money had gone to something like Adoption Rhode Island,” Ajello said, because then the state would not be supporting a religious organization.

But the bill’s supporters maintain the measure has merit. Rep. Patricia Morgan, R-Warwick, said she voted in favor of the bill because many similar charity license plates already exist. “It is a valid point of view of many people in our state, and they have the right to express that,” she said, adding that Chafee was letting his “personal feelings” obstruct Rhode Islanders’ right to display their values publicly. “We support the Patriots, we support the Red Sox — those who want to should be able to support the pro-life cause as well.”

She said the plates would “keep people aware of the issue and allow people to express their support” in a similar manner to other charitable causes.

CareNet was not heavily involved in drafting the legislation, but Executive Director Rachel Nguyen said the group was “disappointed” that Chafee vetoed the bill without responding to invitations to visit the organization or otherwise contacting it.

“(Chafee) made his decision without really understanding what we do,” Nguyen said. CareNet offers services to women and men regardless of religious beliefs, with the central goal of providing support for unplanned pregnancies, she said.

The plates would have cost $40, with $20 of each purchase going to CareNet.


— With additional reporting by Adam Toobin

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