When I was a kid, license plates in Pennsylvania were very simple. They were mustard yellow with blue letters and numbers. Then, at some point, a dramatic change occurred: the plates became blue with mustard yellow letters and numbers!
These days I see all manner of specialty license plates on the road. Drivers hype the school they attended, promote various hobbies and social clubs, and even announce their opposition to legal abortion.
States have learned there is money to be made in the specialty license plate game. Private organizations sponsor these plates and the states charge drivers extra for them. In some states, the sponsoring organization gets a cut of the funds. If you want to save the manatees in Florida, a special tag will help you do that.
In 2008 officials in South Carolina got the idea that some drivers might like a special Christian license plate. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer became an enthusiastic promoter of the idea. The legislature passed a law mandating a specific design: a cross superimposed over a stained-glass window accompanied by the words “I Believe.”
Had this plate been proposed by a religious group in the state, it might have joined the other specialty plates available in South Carolina. But government officials went another route when they passed a special law requiring creation of this plate. They chose the road less constitutional.
Even as they were promoting the Christian plate, legislators made it clear no other religion could expect that type of treatment. One lawmaker was asked about the possibility of a Muslim plate and replied, “Absolutely and positively no.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the plate, representing four members of the clergy. What happened next is predictable: Bauer and South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster joined fundamentalist clergy at rallies throughout the state complaining about the “persecution” of Christians.
Bauer asserted that Christians were being ill treated because South Carolina has a license plate promoting non-belief. He was telling only half of the story. The plate, which features the phrase “In Reason We Trust,” is sponsored by the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, a group that went through the normal channels to win approval for it. The tag has private sponsorship, not government sponsorship.
Since South Carolina humanists did not petition the legislature to pass a special law creating a plate for them featuring humanist symbols and language, Bauer’s argument is faulty.
Thankfully, a federal court was able to see through the ruse. In November, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie issued a fifty-seven-page ruling striking down the “I Believe” license plate. Currie had earlier issued a restraining order blocking production of the plate, and her full opinion is a masterful defense of church-state separation.
“Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular,” Currie ruled. She went on to say, “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.”
Currie’s observation about political capital is especially interesting. Both Bauer and McMaster are running for governor, and so is state Sen. Larry Grooms, who introduced the plate legislation in the South Carolina Senate. You don’t have to be especially cynical to conclude that all of this posturing over the “I Believe” plate was designed primarily to boost political fortunes, not piety.
In the ruling, Currie also discussed at length the religious rallies Bauer and McMaster attended to whip up support for the plate. She noted soberly that at one rally, the Rev. Arnold Hiette energized the crowd by assuring them that the clergy plaintiffs in the case—a Methodist, a Unitarian, a Jew and a member of the Disciples of Christ—are “going to burn in hell!” (For good measure, Hiette told the crowd that the ACLU is going to hell as well—even though that group is not a party to the case.)
Events like this did the license-plate boosters no favors. Laws are supposed to have a non-religious purpose, yet these rallies made it clear that the “I Believe” license plate was part of a larger Christian crusade. As Currie put it, they “cast doubt on any inference that Lt. Gov. Bauer’s purpose in proposing the Act was a generic interest in supporting diversity of opinion for all faiths.”
The day the opinion was released, Bauer issued a statement of outrage. His rant was chockfull of the type of sophistry we’ve come to expect from the religious right. Bauer attacked Judge Currie personally, calling her “a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton who is using her personal wishes to overrule the Legislature and the will of the thousands of South Carolinians who want to purchase the tags.”
Bauer went on to distort the ruling beyond recognition, calling it an assault on the free-speech rights of Christians. “I don’t understand,” he griped, “why witnessing for fundamental, enduring values is controversial or threatening.”
It’s not—unless the government decides to help out. That’s exactly what happened in South Carolina, and that’s why Currie put a stop to it.
I’ve worked at Americans United for Separation of Church and State for more than two decades and in that time have noticed it’s exceedingly difficult to get a core concept through to the religious right: you have free speech—but that doesn’t mean government has any role to play in helping you spread your religion.
In fact, government can’t sponsor religious messages. When the state passes a special law mandating that the Department of Motor Vehicles produce a specific license plate festooned with Christian symbols, and when legislators make it clear no other religion will get that preferential treatment, government isn’t just accommodating religion; it is actively promoting it.
More to the point, why would religion want the government’s help? I miss the days when churches had a healthy skepticism of the state and believed that offers of “help” were really just attempts to co-opt.
The day the ruling came down, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told a local television station, “Religion is protected by keeping it as far away from government as possible.”
Now that’s a powerful statement. I like it so much I’d even consider putting it on a license plate.