A federal court ruled Tuesday that a Christian license plate is unconstitutional. The “I Believe” specialty plate features a yellow cross and stained-glass window.
U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie said in her ruling that the license plate was unconstitutional because it violates a constitutional ban on establishment of religion.
The measure was brought up in the South Carolina statehouse after similar legislation failed to pass Florida lawmakers.
Groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee challenged the plate. Judge Currie ordered the state to cover the legal expenses of those groups.
Americans United Executive Director Rev. Barry Lynn says that some South Carolina officials appeared to want to use religion as a political football.
But there are a number of specialty license plates which have been approved in South Carolina. Lynn explains why this one was different.
“Unlike other specialty plates that go through a process in the Department of Motor Vehicles, this was approved directly by the legislature,” said Lynn. “There are many so-call ‘vanity plates’ but those plates do not allow symbols or statements like ‘I Believe.’ The legislature made the decision to push only for these Christian plates.”
Lynn says many supporters of the Christian plate said that they would not vote to support other similar plates for minority faiths.
Now a private group says it will issue its own version of the license plate. The Palmetto Family Council says a state law allows private groups to issue license tags on their own.
Rev. Lynn explains why he feels that his organization’s position on the issue of separation of church and state is important. He says it’s dangerous for a government to play favorites in a country where there are 2000 separate religious faiths. Lynn says Christianity may be the majority religion in the state but everyone deserves the same support by state lawmakers.
Lynn says he doesn’t want his position misunderstood. He is not only a long-time activist and lawyer in the civil liberties field and leader of Americans United since 1992, he is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
“No one is saying that a car can’t contain other emblems of the faith of the driver,” says Lynn. “There are bumper stickers, Christian flags and those little fish magnets–many ways to show that you’re a Christian and proud of it. But the state shouldn’t be adding its vote to your religious preference.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, DC and was founded in 1947. A press release states that the organization safeguards religious freedom.
Judge Currie wrote that whether state officials were motivated by sincere Christian beliefs or by an effort to purchase political capital, that the state law was clearly unconstitutional and defense of the case led to expensive litigation for the state.
Read the full decision at www.scd.uscourts.gov