Ron Stiver, commissioner of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said Tuesday he is reversing a recently adopted agency policy that had barred the mention of religion or a deity, ending a monthlong controversy that had resulted in a lawsuit.
The short-lived policy was "well-intended and legally defensible," Stiver said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to what makes the most common sense."
The answer, he said, was to revert to the previous policy, in which a committee of BMV employees weighs each request for a personalized license plate, deciding whether the plate "carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency or would be misleading."
That wording, he said, "sufficed before; it should suffice now."
The BMV didn't think so in December 2007 when, in reviewing 230 of its policies, it decided to be more specific by adopting a new rule allowing the agency to bar plates that referred to drugs, alcohol, bodily functions and parts, political parties, violence, race, gender, religion or a deity.
The policy struck some as particularly perplexing because one of Indiana's official license plates, which is used on more than 2 million vehicles, states: "In God We Trust."
The new policy didn't go into effect until Nov. 6, and within days, the BMV was sued by Liz Ferris, a 36-year-old Cambridge City woman, who for several years had had license plates that read: "BE GODS."
This year, though, her plate -- like similar ones requested by more than 60 other Hoosiers -- was rejected because of the new policy. Ferris filed a federal lawsuit, saying her First Amendment rights to free speech were being violated.
Last week, the BMV decided to allow her and three other motorists who had appealed their rejections to keep their plates. But Ferris' attorney, Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based group that advocates for religious liberty, said the lawsuit would continue.
Neither Ferris nor Stanley could be reached Tuesday to comment on whether they will now drop the lawsuit.
Stiver said that after deciding to let Ferris and the other three motorists keep their plates, he reviewed the policy in depth and decided to drop it.
He said a letter will be sent to the 60 other motorists whose plates mentioning God had been rejected but who had not appealed, giving them the chance to get the plates in 2009.
Dale Raber, a painter who lives in Southport, has had three personalized plates: "CALVARY," "ONE KING," and "GODS 4 US." He was encouraged to hear the BMV was changing its policy.
"I was really concerned we were losing our rights. It disturbed me," said Raber, 52. "I think this is going to make a lot of people more comfortable. I'm very glad they changed their minds."
The controversy was the first for the BMV -- once a frequent target of derision from taxpayers -- after considerable improvement in customer satisfaction since Stiver took the helm a couple of years ago. A new State Board of Accounts audit released Tuesday praised "extraordinary improvement from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in creating a controlled and secure business environment."