Ind. activists fight gay-support license plates

By TOM LoBIANCO

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -

Gay activists and gay-youth support groups are winning small battles nationwide to stamp specialty license plates supporting their cause, but conservative activists in Indiana are looking to put a dent in that effort.

Indiana began printing new plates in December for the Indiana Youth Group, which supports gay youth in Indiana. The state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles approved the plates after a 2010 court battle with IYG and the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet in the waning days of the 2012 session, Advance America - an Indiana-based nonprofit led by conservative stalwart Eric Miller - is lobbying state lawmakers to ban IYG and other gay support groups from offering special Indiana plates.

State Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, has tried three times this year to ban the IYG plates by pushing amendments for unrelated motor vehicle bills. House Republicans rebutted his latest attempt this week for fear that the controversial issue would damage support for their broader effort of cracking down on the recent rapid growth of specialty plates - there are 105 of them, according to the House's transportation committee chairman.

Indiana nonprofits can receive $25 out of every $40 spent on a specialty plate. In 2011, the state sold more than 420,000 of them, netting more than $11 million for nonprofits. The groups - ranging from the anti-abortion Indiana Association of Pregnancy Centers to the sportsmen's National Wild Turkey Foundation - also get a new way to display their cause, rather than the more traditional bumper sticker.

Last month, South Carolina became the third state to issue specialty plates for a gay advocacy group. Maryland was the first, approving plates for Equality Maryland in 2008.

Mary Byrne, executive director of the Indiana Youth Group, said Friday she didn't want to comment on the fight for Indiana license plates. But Christine Johnson, executive director of gay advocacy group SC Equality said she was "disgusted" by the attempt to ban them.

"I'm not surprised by what's happening Indiana, but I am sort of disgusted," Johnson said. "I consider it a free speech issue."

Johnson said about 100 of the SC Equality plates have been requested so far. The process in South Carolina was fairly easy, she said, because the state has a relatively open policy for approving specialty plates after the state began stamping "In God We Trust" and "God Bless America" plates. Indiana recently redesigned its own "In God We Trust" specialty plates.

Advance America's Miller did not return multiple calls for comment Friday, but has railed against Indiana's gay advocacy plates and IYG on his website, accusing the group of recruiting children to become gay - a charge Byrne has previously denied.

Miller also wrote about his lobbying efforts in the state senate in a Feb. 13 letter addressed to Senate President Pro Tem David Long. The letter detailed a meeting Miller held with Long and Long's top deputies.

"Taking the actions mentioned earlier will help protect the children and families of Indiana! Thank you for your commitment to help with this very important issue. Your leadership will be invaluable!" wrote Miller in a copy of the letter obtained by the Associated Press.

Long, though, was noncommittal in his response letter dated Feb. 15, saying a ban would likely raise too many constitutional problems.

"As we discussed, we have a responsibility to ensure that any solution is fair and can withstand Constitutional scrutiny. Any solution we craft needs to be broad-based, fair and grounded in well-reasoned public policy," Long wrote.

Thompson would not say his amendment specifically targeted IYG, arguing that it had to do with the state's education laws. He also attempted to amend measures that would have regulated mopeds and put regulation of car dealerships in the Indiana secretary of state's office, but was unsuccessful in both attempts. He didn't say if he'd further pursue the ban during the final weeks of the session.

In the past, Indiana lawmakers haven't always shied away from battles over conservative issues. Last year, they approved a ban on using federal Medicaid dollars to fund Planned Parenthood clinics because of the group's support of abortion rights and also established tough laws against illegal immigration. Both policies landed the state in federal court.

House transportation committee chairman Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, scuttled Thompson's latest effort to ban the plates last week. He and other lawmakers, including state Sens. Jim Merritt and Tom Wyss, are working on legislation to ensure that groups with specialty plates spend the proceeds properly.

The debate over plates for gay support groups is a fight that could easily sink that broader effort and one not worth having right now, Soliday said.

"I think there needs to be accountability and transparency and there needs to be a review," Soliday said. "That's what we're trying to do without starting completely from scratch. And we need to sort of have some areas that we can all agree we don't mind having a plate for."

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