Christian-Themed License Plate Program Goes Too Far

Human Rights

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers of Columbia, S.C., spent his career working as a pastoral chaplain, where he promoted concepts such as interfaith harmony and respect among religions.

Now retired, the United Methodist minister was duly alarmed when he learned that government officials in his state planned to create a special license plate for Christians. A strong supporter of church-state separation, Summers quickly agreed to join a lawsuit sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State to stop the plate from being issued.

"As a resident of South Carolina for over 70 years and as a Christian minister for nearly 50 years in this state, I am incensed by the action of our state legislature in its approving the 'I Believe' license plates," Summers said. "I have spent so much of my ministerial career in interfaith efforts in hopes of healing any religious division. Sadly, these plates represent the governmental sanction of Christianity over the many other wonderful religious faith groups in our state.

"This arrogant action taken by the legislature is absolutely divisive, oppressive and is an affront to what true interfaith cooperation is all about," he continued.

The legal action takes aim at a specialty license plate approved by the South Carolina legislature last month. The so-called "I Believe" license plate features a large yellow cross superimposed over a depiction of a stained-glass church window. The words "I BELIEVE" appear at the bottom of the plate.

Americans United had warned Palmetto State legislators not to approve the specialty tag, pointing out that such preferential treatment for Christianity runs afoul of the First Amendment. Lawmakers were not swayed. Approval of the plate was among a spate of religion-themed bills passed by the legislature this summer.

Like many states, South Carolina offers a variety of special license plates that promote civic and community organizations. These plates typically cost between $30 to $100 above the regular $24 plate fee, with the sponsoring organization receiving a cut of the funds.

Organizations seeking special plates are required to prove, before production begins, that there is sufficient interest in the tag by putting down a $4,000 deposit or providing 400 pre-paid orders. Numerous organizations have gone through this process, including the South Carolina Chiropractic Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Free Masons and the Secular Humanists of the Low Country.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) says these special plates may contain the name of the sponsoring organization and its logo but may not contain other words, phrases or slogans.

In other cases, some organizations have approached the legislature to approve a special license plate. These plates are free from some DMV regulations and can feature an icon, a slogan or both. The requesting organization typically designs these plates and must submit a marketing plan before the tags enter production. The groups must still provide a $4,000 deposit or 400 pre-paid orders.

The "I Believe" plate is different. No group requested it. And, although the legislature has approved plates bearing the national motto "In God We Trust" as well as the phrase, "God Bless America," the "I Believe" plate marks the first time that the legislature has ever passed legislation approving a license plate that promotes a particular faith.

State officials chose the design for the plate and presumably will be responsible for marketing it. Eager to see the plate produced as soon as possible, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer has said he is willing to pay the $4,000 deposit, although he plans to be reimbursed by the state later. And Gov. Mark Sanford has ordered that the DMV charge no more than the cost of production for the plate, which has been estimated to be four to six dollars. Thus, the "I Believe" plate will be significantly cheaper than almost every other specialty license plate.

"The state has clearly given preferential treatment to Christianity with this license plate," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "I can't think of a more flagrant violation of the First Amendment's promise of equal treatment for all faiths."

Joining Summers as plaintiffs in the case are three other South Carolina clergy - the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight, pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Charleston and an adjunct professor of clinical counseling at Webster University; Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, rabbi emeritus at the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia; and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia. A national religious organization, the Hindu American Foundation, has also signed on.

The Summers v. Adams legal action was filed June 19 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It charges that the Christian plate gives preferential governmental treatment to one faith and asks the court to prevent South Carolina officials from producing the special tag.

How did South Carolina get to this pass? Lt. Gov. Bauer and state lawmakers apparently picked up the idea from Florida, where some legislators and lobbyists pushed for an "I Believe" license plate. Although the measure stalled in Florida, it ripped through the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate, passing the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a vote of 109-0.

The license plate push is part of a larger effort in South Carolina to erode the separation of church and state. State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican from Bonneau, has been the driving force behind this gambit.

Grooms went on something of a religious crusade in South Carolina this year, pressing for the "I Believe" plate and also sponsoring bills fostering prayer at public meetings and encouraging government agencies and public schools to display the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer alongside other "historic" documents. All three measures became law.

Grooms, a Southern Baptist and gas station owner, was first elected in 1997 and is known for pushing Religious Right causes. He sponsored successful legislation to create supposedly objective elective classes about the Bible in South Carolina public schools and has backed school vouchers as well. In 2007, he sponsored a bill that would have required any woman seeking an abortion to first look at an ultrasound image of her fetus.

In 2006, Grooms and other South Carolina lawmakers sent a letter to the president of Clemson University, protesting the school's decision to assign the book Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett to incoming freshmen. The memoir deals with Patchett's close, but non-sexual, relationship with another female writer. Grooms carped that the book was too racy for freshmen.

Grooms' religiously themed legislation attracted little controversy in South Carolina, where religious conservatives dominate, but national organizations like Americans United were watching developments carefully and continued to speak out.

The "I Believe" plate appeared especially vulnerable to a legal challenge, and the bill did give Gov. Sanford some pause. Sanford refused to sign the measure, allowing it to become law without his signature.

In a letter to the legislature, Sanford said he had some concerns about the way the plate was authorized. He called the process "unnecessarily complicated" and criticized the General Assembly for creating this plate.

Sanford also worked a little sermonette into his reply.

"While I do, in fact, 'believe' - it is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one's faith ought to be in how one lives one's life," observed the governor. "[The biblical book of] Galatians talks of the fruit of the spirit as peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and more - and, accordingly, if God is working in one's life, these things will say what no license plate will ever say."

Despite his qualms, Sanford is allowing the plate to go into production, leading to the AU legal action.

"The state has made believers of non-Christian faiths feel that they are second-class citizens," Lynn said. "Under our Constitution, that's impermissible."

AU attorneys Ayesha N. Khan, Heather L. Weaver and Nancy Leong address this matter in their legal brief. They assert that the law authorizing the plate "constitutes governmental speech because the plate was designed, proposed and approved by, and will be produced and distributed by, state officials. The passage of the legislation creating the 'I Believe' license plate, the advertising and marketing of the plate and the imminent production of the plate have the purpose and effect of promoting, advancing and endorsing the Christian religion."

The legal challenge is not South Carolina's first tangle over license plates. In 2001, South Carolina lawmakers approved a "Choose Life" license plate to promote opposition to legal abortion. Like the "I Believe" plate, the idea for the "Choose Life" tag came from legislators.

Planned Parenthood sued, and in 2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down issuance of the plate, holding that the state's refusal to make available an equivalent pro-choice license plate was viewpoint discrimination. (Planned Parenthood v. Rose)

South Carolina officials reacted to the Americans United lawsuit with anger - and defiance.

"For those who say this violates the Constitution by giving preference to Christianity, I think this lawsuit clearly discriminates against persons of faith," Bauer said in a statement. "I expect the state attorney general to vigorously defend this, and it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough."

But plaintiff Jones said Bauer has it wrong.

"As a citizen, I resent the fact that our legislature is acting in a way that favors one group of citizens," Jones, who serves as president of AU's Columbia Chapter, told the Greenville News. "As representatives, they are supposed to represent all the people. They aren't doing that; they are showing favoritism. If you're not a Christian, the implied message is you're a second-class citizen."

Jones' concerns were echoed by the Hindu American Foundation.

Suhag Shukla, the Foundation's legal counsel, called the state's action "divisive and just the kind of majoritarianism and political kowtowing that our Founding Fathers foresaw and sought to prevent."

"Hindus and adherents of other minority faiths," concluded Shukla, "are clearly rendered to second-class citizenship by this legislation."

Plaintiff Knight pointed out another problem with the plate: It debases the Christian message.

"As an evangelical Christian, I don't think civil religion enhances the Christian religion. It compromises it," Knight told the Associated Press. "That's the fundamental irony. It's very shallow from a Christian standpoint."

The day the suit was filed, AU's office was inundated with hostile e-mails from outraged Religious Right sympathizers, furious over the legal action. Lynn said the Religious Right's vituperation won't slow down AU for a minute.

Sponsoring the plate sent "a clear signal that Christianity is the preferred religion of South Carolina," Lynn told The New York Times. "And obviously we don't believe the Constitution allows this."

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