updated 1/23/2007 4:30:24 PM ET 2007-01-23T21:30:24

A federal judge ordered state officials Monday to offer license plates with the motto "Choose Life," saying that the message, considered by some to be anti-abortion, is protected by the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge David H. Coar said the state must issue the plate as long as sponsors of the idea can meet certain numerical and design requirements.

A group called Choose Life Illinois Inc., made up largely of adoption advocates, tried in vain for several years to get legislative approval for the plates before suing in 2004.

Coar said in his opinion that he assumed that the request for a "Choose Life" license plate was prompted by a sincere interest in promoting adoption, but that whatever the intent, the message is protected speech.

Coar's ruling was issued on the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion, but it made no mention of the 1973 case.

Democratic state Rep. Lou Lang said Monday he believes the message was designed to campaign for a ban on abortions.

"The anti-choice folks will look for any edge they can find to push their agenda," Lang said.

Former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, a Republican sponsor of the measure, said in a telephone interview Monday that it made no difference even if "Choose Life" did represent an anti-abortion slogan.

"Does that make it bad?" O'Malley said. "Whether it is or it isn't, you should still be allowed to express yourself."

The secretary of state's office, which issues 60 kinds of specialty license plates to Illinois motorists, plans to appeal. It argues that there must be legislative approval before it can issue any kind of specialty license plates.

"We have no opinion on the message," office spokesman David Druker said.

A message left for the president of Choose Life Illinois, Jim Finnegan, was not immediately returned Monday night.

"Choose Life" license plates have been approved in about a dozen states, in some cases by legislatures that have rejected proposals by abortion-rights advocates for license-plate designs supporting their viewpoint. Federal appeals courts have been divided on the issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals on the subject.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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