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"I believe" car license plates

South Carolina: 2008-9

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"I Believe" license plates from South Carolina

Legislation passed in South Carolina:

South Carolina has a procedure controlling the creation of specialty license plates that is deeply respectful of people's freedom of speech and religion. Any group can create custom license plates for any cause. State law allows groups to create specialty plates as long as they first provide either a $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders. In fact, the Secular Humanists of the Low Country followed that procedure to make a license plate containing the words "In Reason We Trust" available to their membership. Similarly, another private group made "In God We Trust" plates available.

Lt. Gov. André Bauer of South Carolina heard about the Christian "I Believe" license plates in Florida and wanted to see similar plates become available in South Carolina. He regarded it as a freedom-of-speech issue. He could have phoned up a few Christian churches and had them collect prepaid orders for the plates, like many dozens of other groups did to create their custom plates. However, for a reason that unclear, he decided to take another approach: to have Christian license plates created by an act of the legislature.

Bill S.C. Code Ann. ? 56-3-10510, authorized the "I Believe" license plate design. It sailed through the legislature with little discussion during 2008-MAY. Both the House and Senate passed the bill with unanimous votes. Gov. Mark Sanford (R) let it become law on JUN-05 without his signature.

According to the Wildhunt Blog:

"Supporters of the cross-emblazoned plates have argued that they are legal since any religious group can sponsor similarly biased tags, an argument that quickly falls apart when you speak to local officials about what exactly counts as a religion."

"In South Carolina, Baptists wanted the tag on cars here and pitched the idea to Republican South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer?s chief of staff. State Sen. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree Democrat, got the bill passed in a couple of days without even having a public hearing or debate. 'It?s a great idea,' McGill said Tuesday, calling it an opportunity to express beliefs. 'People don?t have to buy them. But it affords them that opportunity. I welcome any religion tags.' What about Wicca, commonly referred to as witchcraft? 'Well, that?s not what I consider to be a religion,' McGill said."

That sentiment doesn?t just apply to Wiccans of course, Muslims are right out too.

"Asked by a reporter if he would support a license plate for Islam, Rep. Bill Sandifer replied, 'Absolutely and positively no? I would not because of my personal belief, and because I believe that wouldn't be the wish of the majority of the constituency in this house district'."

The state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) designed a plate as shown above, with a yellow Protestant cross superimposed on a stained glass window, and the "I Believe" statement at the top. They placed an image of the plates on their website on 2008-OCT-30. and started taking orders. Within three days, the DMV had received the necessary 400 prepaid applications.

Lawsuit launched by Americans United:

On 2008-NOV-12, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) joined with the Hindu American Foundation to file a lawsuit in United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on behalf of two Christian pastors, a humanist pastor, and a rabbi.

AU's executive director, Rev. Barry Lynn, said:

"I do believe these 'I Believe' plates will not see the light of day because the courts, I'm confident, will see through this."

He said his group would not have opposed the "I Believe" plates had they been advocated by private groups.

House Speaker, Bobby Harrell (R), disputed an accusation by Rev. Lynn that they were pandering to constituents in an election year.

"That's what critics always say when they see something they don't like. I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally."

A retired Methodist pastor joined the lawsuit. Rev. Thomas Summers of Columbia, SC said the plate provokes discrimination. He said:

"I think this license plate really is divisive and creates the type of religious discord I've devoted my life to healing."

Another of the minister plaintiffs, the Rev. Robert Knight of Charleston, said the plates cheapen the Christian message. He said:

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

Promoting the plates:

Rallies were held in Greer and Simpsonville SC to build public support for the plates.

At the Greer rally on 2009-JAN-06, a pastor described the plaintiffs in the case as:

"One Jewish Rabbi, one Methodist pastor, one first Christian Pastor, and one Unitarian [- Universalist] that has not a clue what God is and my friends listen to me, along with him and the ACLU, they're going to burn in Hell!"

Lt. Gov. Bauer also spoke. He referred to the existence of a South Carolina "secular tag" -- apparently referring to the "In Reason we Trust" plates of the local Humanist group. Bauer said: "... if you're atheists, if you're a non-believer, you can purchase a license plate."  He explained that he had obtained a "Reason" plate from the DMV "...to show it on the TV." He then stated "Never seen one on a car, I'd hate to be in that car."

It is unclear whether he would fear a physical attack by God or by fellow believers, or by both if he were in a car with a "Reason" license plate.

He did not seem to realize that the court case was not launched because of the particular belief system advertised on the plates. It was caused by the legislature taking an active role in promoting a religion.

Bauer continued by saying:

"Total freedom of speech [is available to] everybody but Christians. So we have become a silent majority quite frankly, folks. When a secular group can get a license plate and nobody challenges it, but Christians can't, there's a problem in the system. ... It is just disheartening to me to hear people [who] want to discourage Christians to be able to speak up, but then they want their freedom of speech."

About a week after the Greer rally, Bauer initiated a petition stating:

"As you probably know by now, I am a strong advocate for the 'I Believe' license plate, and presented the idea to the Legislature after seeing a similar fight in Florida fail. ... Most recently, the tags were put on hold by a Federal judge, and will most likely be appealed and continue through the court system. I can tell you that this process will not take place in 'just days[.]' ... It is time that we as Christians let society know that we are tired of backing down in fear of ridicule for exercising our beliefs simply because others say that they are offended. ... Just because I hold public office, I do not stop being a Christian. I will not force my beliefs on any South Carolina citizen but neither will I hide them. If ... you agree ... that all South Carolina citizens should have the 'choice' to display a license plate on their vehicle that reflects their beliefs at their own cost, then I urge you to join me by signing this online petition . . .. Furthermore, if you could help by forwarding this link to everyone possible, and helping to make your friends and family aware of it, it will enable us to get thousands of signatures and show the world that we Christians do in fact still have a powerful voice."

It seems inconceivable, but Lt. Gov. Bauer may not have realized that there would have been no objections and no legal case if some Christian group had simply applied for a new license design, just as the Humanist group and many dozens of other organizations have done in the past. Deposit $4,000 or get 400 pre-paid orders and the license plate is theirs. No bill, no house vote, no senate vote, no Governor making the bill law, no lawsuit, no legal briefs, no injunction -- a much simpler procedure overall.

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The court case:

Plaintiffs in the Summers v. Adams case included four local clergy: Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones. They were joined by the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Legal briefs filed by Americans United (AU) claimed that these plates were different from previous specialty plates. They were  authorized by a bill passed by both houses of the legislature which became a state law. AU noted that some legislators openly admitted that they would not vote for similar plates for other religious groups.

The U.S. district court held a hearing on 2008-DEC-11. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court issued a preliminary injunction that placed a hold on plate distribution.

The court issued its final ruling on 2009-NOV-12. U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie determined that the Christian license plate violated the constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state. She ruled that the plates clearly give preferred government treatment to one religion. She ordered the state to not distribute the plates. She ordered that the state pay for the plaintiff's legal fees, which would have been considerable. She wrote:

"This case presents a textbook example of the need for and continued vitality of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly warned that 'government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization.' See, e.g., County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 590 (1989)
(emphasis added). This limitation on government action is based on the clear understanding of our
founders that 'a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade
religion.' Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). ..."

"Plaintiffs include four religious leaders and two non-profit religious-cultural organizations (collectively 'Plaintiffs'). In their initial and first amended complaints, Plaintiffs challenged the 'IBelieve' Act on two grounds. First, they argued that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment) because it constitutes government action that advances, endorses, or promotes religion. Second, they argued that it violates the Free Speech Clause by providing a forum to Christians to which other religions are not given equal access . ..." 1

"Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular. Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same. The statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation."

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director said:

"This is great news. Government must never be allowed to express favored treatment for one faith over others. That's unconstitutional and un-American. Some officials seem to want to use religion as a political football. That's an appalling misuse of governmental authority, and I am thrilled that the judge put a stop to it."

Ayesha N. Khan, AU's legal counsel was pleased with the court's decision. She wrote:

"Government must never be allowed to play favorites when it comes to religion. That's a fundamental constitutional rule, and I am delighted that the judge has reminded South Carolina officials of that fact."

André Bauer said that the:

" 'I Believe' [license plate] reflects core values that are meaningful to our society, promoting love, joy, and comfort in our spiritual lives, and accommodating to every citizen's right of free exercise of any and all religions. I don't understand why witnessing for fundamental, enduring values is controversial or threatening."

Bauer at this point is faced with two alternatives:

bulletTo accept the court ruling, call up some Christian friends, have them organize a group to pursue an "I believe" license plate in the normal manner like every previous group has done. This could be done in a matter of a few weeks. It would cost essentially nothing because volunteer labor could probably be adequate.
bulletAppeal the court ruling to the circuit court, and potentially to the U.S. Supreme Court. This would be extremely expensive, would consume a long time to resolve, and would inflame religious passions in the state.

He appears to have taken the second, slower, more time consuming, and more disruptive route. He said that he was offended by the court order and considers it an attack against Christians:

"For those who say proclaiming 'I believe' violates the Constitution by giving preference to Christianity, I think this lawsuit clearly discriminates against persons of faith. I will ask the state attorney general to vigorously appeal this ruling because it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough."


  1. Seanna Adcox, "Group files suit over 'I Believe' license plates," Associated Press, 2008-JUN-19, at: http://www.christianpost.com/
  2. Judge strikes down Christian license plate," Christian Post, 2009-NOV-11, at: http://www.christianpost.com/
  3. "C/A NO. 3:08-2265-CMC," District Court for the District of South Carolina, at: http://www.scd.uscourts.gov/  This is a PDF file.
  4. "Federal District Court Rules Against South Carolina?s ?Christian? License Plate," Americans United, 2009-NOV-10, at: http://www.au.org/
  5. Tim Smith, "Legislation creating 'I Believe' license plates unconstitutional, judge rules," Greenville Online.com, 2009-NOV-11, at: http://www.greenvilleonline.com/
  6. Jason, "More on the Pagan Angle to those 'I Believe' Plates," The Wild Hunt blog, 2009-NOV-13, at: http://wildhunt.org/

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Copyright © 2008 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2008-MAY
Latest update: 2009-NOV-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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