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Nova Scotia refuses personalized licence plate referring to Christ

A Halifax woman is asking why her application for a personalized licence plate was turned down because its message was an acronym for a phrase celebrating Jesus Christ.

Earlier this month, Rhonda Lynne Cormier-Clarke and her husband Greg Clarke applied for a plate with the letters IXOYE and were turned down by Service Nova Scotia, the department which administers vehicle licensing.

Ontario is the only province that explicitly says it won't allow religious messages on license plates.

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The application form used in Nova Scotia says that the licensing authority will not approve slogans that are "socially unacceptable, offensive, not in good taste, or implying an official authority."

IXOYE, a transliteration of the Greek word for fish, is also an acronym for a phrase meaning "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour." Early Christians who were persecuted by the Romans used the fish as a secret symbol to identify themselves.

The fish iconography remains popular with some Christians and Ms. Cormier-Clarke adopted it after her husband gave her a fish-shaped necklace he bought in Israel.

"I just wanted something that was dear to my heart," said Ms. Cormier-Clarke, a lay minister at the Saint Thomas Aquinas Canadian Martyrs parish in Halifax.

The clerk taking her application didn't know the meaning of the word until Mr. Clarke volunteered an explanation, which prompted the bureaucrat to warn the couple that "Oh, you won't be allowed to have those letters on your plate. I can guarantee you they'll be red-flagged."

They tried another abbreviation, WWJD, which, Ms. Cormier-Clarke said, stands for "What Would Jesus Do?" but found that it had already been issued to another motorist.

"It doesn't make sense," Ms. Cormier-Clarke said.

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John MacDonell, the Minister of Service Nova Scotia, said in an interview, that the province has a say on what goes on license plates because they are a taxpayer-funded way to identify a vehicle, "For a long time in this country, people believed in separation of church and state. We're sticking to that," he said, noting that Nova Scotia also won't allow political content on license plates.

Mr. MacDonell acknowledged that his department's forms are not clear on the prohibition on religious or political content.

"Okay. That's something I can think about. Whether people find that confusing, that's something we can think about."

He said Ms. Cormier-Clarke is welcome to put a Christian slogan on a bumper sticker or a front vanity plate, which are not official in Nova Scotia, "but we're not going to do it through our licensing program."

Other provinces that offer personalized license plates (Quebec and Newfoundland don't) usually caution that they won't approve messages that are vulgar, offensive or related to drugs and alcohol.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction that explicitly bans religious slogans.

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The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has a 374-word public policy that also forbids plate slogans that infringe trademarks or feature police badge numbers, names of famous people, even the names of advocacy groups or trade organizations.

In 2007, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty overruled his own bureaucrats who had refused to renew the "REV JO" license plate of a United Church minister, Rev. Joanne Sorrill, and the "HVF8TH" plate of Peterborough resident Russell Henry. Officials had also turned down "THE REV2" for another United Church cleric.

The transport minister at the time, Jim Bradley, argued that license plates are like "house gatherings" where some topics are better left off the conversation. "You try to avoid the subject of religion," he said.

Mr. McGuinty said previously approved plates could be kept and the rules were also amended to allow religious titles.

An advisory panel suggested that Ontario allow "positive" religious content but the idea was turned down because interpreting the concept could become contentious.

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