Louisiana’s Choose Life License plate, sponsored by Rep. Shirley Bowler, was authorized in the 1999 Regular Session of the legislature and signed by Governor Mike Foster. One year later, as the plates were just about to go into production, the New York law firm, Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, filed a lawsuit to stop the distribution of the plates. Federal District Judge Stanwood Duval placed a temporary injunction preventing the production and distribution of the plates.
On August 8, 2001, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments as to the district court’s ruling that the State of Louisiana had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by allowing only one side of a controversial issue to be represented on a state license plate. The State argued that the plate was not a public forum requiring all sides to be represented, but rather that the “Choose Life” message was state speech expressing Louisiana’s preference for childbirth over abortion.
The plaintiffs also contended that the state has become excessively entangled with religion by allowing several groups which hold to a Christian code of conduct to give advice on the design of the plate and to help process applications for the funds generated by the plate. Judge Duval said in his original ruling on the injunction against the plate that he did not see much merit in this particular argument. Because the Fifth Circuit eventually dismissed the case on the grounds of standing, this argument was not addressed by the court.
In the 2001 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature, Rep. Shirley Bowler offered a bill to amend the current Choose Life license plate and remove the Advisory Council. Two days before the session was to end, Senator Diana Bajoie attempted to amend that bill and create a “Choose Choice” license plate with funding to benefit groups offering abortion counseling and services such as Planned Parenthood. The session ended before the bill could be passed by both houses in any form
On March 29, 2002, in a 2-1 decision, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs in the Choose Life License plate case had no standing and ordered the case back to the District court for dismissal. On April 12, 2002, the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy appealed to the 5th Circuit for an en banque (all judges on 5th Circuit) hearing. On August 9, 2002, the court denied their appeal. On August 15, 2002, the CRLP asked that the 5th Circuit maintain its injunction while they apply for a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. The 5th Circuit denied the request.
On September 30, 2002 the CRLP petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case. They also asked the Supreme Court to keep the injunction in place until a decision is made on the entire case. On October 7, 2002, it was announced that Justice Antonin Scalia, who is responsible for reviewing cases from the U.S. 5th Circuit court, refused to maintain the injunction.
Finally, on October 14, 2002, the Supreme Court announced that all efforts to stay the injunction had failed.
After this series of legal battles, the plates finally became available for sale on November 1, 2002.
However, on July 11, 2003 the same federal judge stopped the sale of all specialty plates in Louisiana and more legal battles ensued. However, the specialty plates won out again and the plates were allowed to go to production.
On April 3, 2006, the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles again began selling all specialty plates including the Choose Life plate. It continues to sell and print the plates to this day.
S.B. 289, authored by Senator Conrad Appel (Metairie) and Representative Frank Hoffman (Monroe), amended the statute that authorizes the Choose Life License Plate to enable a more effective and efficent mechanism for managing the program. To facilitate this goal, the legislation gave permission to the Louisiana Right to Life Educational Committee to manage the program and promote the plate.
On November 1st, 2002, under sunny Louisiana skies, about 52 Louisiana drivers made a pilgrimage to Baton Rouge to get Choose Life license plates for their vehicles. At 11am, the DMV was nearly overwhelmed as motorists competed to be among the first to finally get the long-awaited plates. It is believed that Kathleen Harrison was the first to get her plate on her car, and was proudly seen on Louisiana roads by 11:10 am. Not long after, La. state rep. Shirley Bowler’s mother-in-law, Rosemary Bowler was proudly holding her no. 18 plate, which is the number of children she had! Excitement filled the DMV as people proudly came out holding their specialty plate, knowing that they were supporting women faced with the pressure of an unplanned pregnancy. Every purchase raised $50 to support women who choose to give birth to their babies.
Here are some pictures of the first day the Choose Life license plates went on sale at the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles.