To veto `Chose Life' RI plate or not is Chafee's choice

Jul 6, 2013

Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but we have a big crush on license plates. Over the years, there have been family fights over who gets grandpa’s low digit tag and thousands of dollars have changed hands in pursuit of those coveted one, two, or three digit beauties.

This attitude is yet another symbol of the parochialism and provincialism that governs the smallest state with the biggest egos.  For some in our cozy state, their plate is part of their identity, like the line from that old Providence Newspaper Guild Follies song, ``I was born in the Ocean State, my wife’s initials on the license plate.’ (Sung to the tune of Bruce Springsteen's `Born in the USA).

Now, Gov. Lincoln Chafee faces a license plate conundrum that no matter what he does will give him a case of political acid reflux.

The issue is the `Choose Life’ anti-abortion license plate legislation that was pushed through the General Assembly with scant discussion in the eleventh hour rush to adjournment. State House  insiders who obviously do not want to be named say the legislation was a sop to religious conservatives frosted by the Assembly’s approval  of same gender marriage in April. Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, a wily conservative Democrat from a community where politics has long been a contact sport, got this done.

This is how this works: Under the legislation, R.I. motorists who wanted a `Choose Life’ plate would have to pay a surcharge of $40. Half of the surcharge, or $20, would go to an anti-abortion counseling service operated by the Knights of Columbus, an all-make organization affiliated with Roman Catholic Church that vigorously opposes abortion and also does many community good deeds, including disaster relief.

Nine hundred Rhode Islanders would have to purchase the plates before the measure takes effect, a provision similar to other fund-raising plates for the non-profit arms of sports teams, including trhe Red Sox and Patriots.

If Chafee vetoes the legislation, he will get hammered by the shrill talk show crowd and probably Rhode Island’s Roman Catholic hierarchy. He may face the holiday tree foolishness all over again. On the other side are women and liberals and the pro-choice position of the national wing of his new party, the Democratic Party. Allowing this measure to become law will bring a hail storm of criticism. Planned Parenthood, the women’s health and abortion provider, has already sharply criticized the legislation and urged Chafee to use his veto pen.

Since there is no way for him to make this a win-win, Chafee may as well do what he usually does and decide the issue on principle. A staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, the governor can make a case for a veto on these grounds: that money funneled through a state agency, in this case the DMV, should not be given to a church group.

In his veto message, he could make clear that he doesn’t want state government involved in either side of this contentious issue, which is really a federal matter governed by the U.S.  Supreme Court in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. That would mean no `pro-life’ or `pro-choice’   RI license plates. Does our state really want to set such a precedent in allowing a church-affiliated group to use license plates to push their agenda? A veto would not stop any R.I. motorist from expressing his or her opinion on this issue or any other via bumper stickers.

Some other states have similar plates and anti-abortion activists assert they pass constitutional muster.

The other tack Chafee could take would be to allow the legislation to become law without his signature and slough it off as a mere pimple on the face of R.I. democracy. No matter how many of these plates are sold, it won’t change anything about the availability of abortion for women in R.I. or anywhere else.

This was the attitude of the last governor with pro-choice leanings, Republican Lincoln Almond. Almond allowed a state ban on so-called `partial birth’ abortion to become law even though he was a supporter of the Roe V. Wade standard. At the time he said such a ban would do nothing to alter a women’s right to an abortion. Alas, it did not.

Yet Chafee has already expressed skepticism of the Chose Life plate on church-state separation grounds, so a veto would come as little surprise. And those on the religious right who support this measure aren’t going to vote for him anyway, so what’s the use of currying their favor. Chafee lost any support he might have had with the religious right-wingers by his championing of same gender marriage anyway.

As one local wag stated, the way so many Rhode Islanders drive, we should have a plate that states: `Choose Life – use your turn signals and turn off your phone.’