License Plates for Jesus

The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. It seems a no-brainer that South Carolina, by offering a license plate with a cross and the phrase "I Believe," is favoring Christianity. The State doesn't offer license plates with the religious symbols that represent other faiths, or a plate that says "I Don't Believe."

"The license plate was approved unanimously by the state’s Legislature earlier this year" because after all, what South Carolina legislator wants to vote against Jesus? South Carolina deserves the lawsuit (pdf) that Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought "on behalf of three Christian clergy members, a rabbi and a Hindu group from the state, arguing that the license plates violated the Constitution."

Approval of the plate “was a clear signal that Christianity is the preferred religion of South Carolina,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group’s executive director and a United Church of Christ minister, “and obviously we don’t believe the Constitution allows this.”


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    license plates (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by STLDeb on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:12:50 AM EST
    I hope I don't stir up a hornet's nest, however that being said, just because you are a Christian doesn't mean you forfeit the same freedom of speech rights as everyone else.

    A lot of other groups are allowed to make plates for their special causes.  If you open the door to one group, you have to allow everyone (Christians also).

    Personally, I do not see this as an endorsement of religion.  

    I am proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.  

    I agree that Christians should have the same... (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by dianem on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:20:53 AM EST
    ...freedom of speech rights as anyone else. That is why the government should not put itself into a position in which it is giving Christians MORE free speech rights than everybody else. The state has a system for letting groups create license plates, a system which would, presumably, allow Christian groups or Jewish Groups or Atheist Groups to create plates of their choosing for a fee. The legislature chose to bypass this process in order to promote a single group. It's a no-brainer - the plates have to go. They can be re-initiated through the regular process. I'm sure that the legislator who sponsored the bill can come up with the deposit or find enough people to buy the plates.

    And then there is the question of where and (none / 0) (#17)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:28:32 AM EST
    when a government issued license plate became a vehicle for individual speech.

    What's next?  Do I get to choose between a peace sign or a semi automatic machine gun icon on the front of my passport?


    I get what you're saying (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by liminal on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:49:02 AM EST
    and have a visceral ewww reaction to these kinds of things, but in my state, you can express loads of things with special license plates:

    1. How much you love NASCAR or a specific NASCAR driver;
    2. How awesome and scenic are our mountains;
    3. A plate showing that you are a member of the state House of Delegates, the state Senate, or the "Silver Haired Legislature" (which gets to sit in the statehouse and, uh, debate stuff, but has no power whatsoever.)
    4. A plate showing that you are one of the governor's 2000 favorite people driving cars in WV.
    5. A plate showing that you are:
       a. a medal of honor recipient;
       b. a former POW;
       c. a disabled veteran;
       d. a purple heart recipient;
       e. a pearl harbor survivor;
       f. an antique car owner (four options)
       g. handicapped;
       h.  a combat veteran;
       i. in the national guard;
       j. in the marine corps league;
       k. in the disabled american veterans;
       l. in the american legion;
       m. a firefighter;
       n. an EMT;
       o. a person who likes amateur radio;
       p. a person who likes WVU;
       q. a person who likes Marshall University;
       r. a person who likes the fraternal order of police;
       s. an Osiris Shriner;
       t. a professional firefighter;
       u. a a person who likes Penn State;
       v. an AF & A Mason;
       w. a Prince Hall Mason;
       x. a person who likes Virginia Tech
       y. an Elk;
       z. a telecommunicator (whatever that is!);
      aa. a person who likes Concord College;
      bb. a person who likes West Virginia Tech;
      cc. a bowler;
      dd. a school bus driver;
      ee. a rotary club member;
      ff. a square dancer;
      gg. a postmaster;
      hh. a chiropractor;
      ii. a person who likes WV State;
      jj. a veteran;
      kk. a wildlife (person who likes! wildlife);
      ll. a deputy sheriff;
      mm. a handicapped motorcyclist;
      nn. a veteran motorcyclist.

    Yeah and more and more people are (5.00 / 1) (#33)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:55:17 AM EST
    obscuring important information with plate surrounds and those tinted pieces of plastic that make it virtually impossible to read the license plate.  The victim of a hit and run can remember that the driver was into bowling or loves Jesus - that's helpful in tracking down the offender - really helpful.

    I imagine the handicapped m/c rider (none / 0) (#31)
    by oculus on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:50:51 AM EST
    plate is quite popular.  

    what does the law actually say? (none / 0) (#20)
    by A DC Wonk on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:34:19 AM EST
    This article makes it pretty unclear as to what the law actually says.  It seems that, still, just like any other plate, you need a $4000 deposit and/or 400 special orders.  But, if that's the case, what need is there for the law?



    It appears they bypassed the process (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by dianem on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:46:31 AM EST
    The legislator said (after the fact) that he would put up the $4,000 deposit, but the law itself seems to specifically authorize these plates outside of the regular law allowing individuals to create license plates.

    Absolutely right.... (5.00 / 2) (#12)
    by kdog on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:25:25 AM EST
    Speech rights apply to everyone, we all have the right to adorn our cars however we see fit....be it with crosses, stars, crescents, or the Rolling Stones logo.

    However, I think it best for the government to stay out of this crap, and to issue only one generic license plate to everybody, and leave the decorations to the individual.


    Hornets nest indeed (none / 0) (#19)
    by Edgar08 on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:33:33 AM EST
    a failure to recognize the obvious difference between the state endorsing a policy with respect to an issue and endorsing a faith with respect to a specific religion would certainly stir up a hornets nest.

    I want one for the Episcopal church (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by DandyTIger on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:25:39 AM EST
    that has a tea cup symbol and says "I'd like one of those cup cakes please. Thank you." :-)

    This being a democracy, some of this (none / 0) (#1)
    by sarissa on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:04:47 AM EST
    stuff is almost unavoidable.  

    What???? (none / 0) (#11)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:24:19 AM EST
    South Carolina did vote to ratify the Constitution which sets some ground rules for this democracy way back in the day.  This country was never set up to be a winner-take-all free-for-all - especially where it came to religious freedoms.

    The lt. gov. (none / 0) (#2)
    by Molly Pitcher on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:06:04 AM EST
    offered to help other religions lobby for one of their own.  Symbols might be a bit hard to come up with.

    As founder and lone member.... (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by kdog on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:11:39 AM EST
    of the church of kdog, I want a license plate with a ganja leaf and the Ace of Spades on it!..:)

    If you want the Jesus logo on your car that's cool, but the state can't provide one, unless the state wants to offer a million different license plate designs to satisfy every knuckleheaded belief system.  I have the feeling that could get expensive.


    your kdog church (none / 0) (#9)
    by Edgar08 on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:22:14 AM EST
    doesn't sound knuckleheaded to me.

    Oh it is, I assure you.... (none / 0) (#15)
    by kdog on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:27:29 AM EST
    but no more or less knuckleheaded than any other:)

    I really wouldnt have taken that approach (none / 0) (#23)
    by Edgar08 on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:41:37 AM EST
    but if you regard your kdog church as knuckleheaded it would be disrespectful of me to tell you otherwise.  

    I'm of the opinion.... (none / 0) (#26)
    by kdog on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:46:47 AM EST
    human beings are by definition knuckleheads.  

    How else can you explain our history?  It's one knuckleheaded thing after another with an occasional glimpse of greatness.


    it's the classic conflict between (none / 0) (#5)
    by A DC Wonk on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:15:15 AM EST
    the "establishment clause", which says that govt can't aid a religion, and the "freedom of religion" clause which says that govt can't hinder it.

    So, it's a balancing act.  Yes, on one hand "I believe" may violate the establishment clause, but allowing every message except a religious one might violate the "freedom of religion" clause.

    Note: I am not suggesting an opinion one way or another -- I am only suggesting that this is not a clear-cut case, but, rather, a balancing act between two clauses in the First Amendment that sometimes conflict with each other.

    No balancing act here (5.00 / 2) (#16)
    by dianem on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:28:29 AM EST
    Lynn said his group would not have opposed the "I Believe" plates had they been advocated by private groups. State law allows private groups to create specialty plates as long as they first collect either a $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders.

    The problem is not with the plate, which could have been created through the normal channels with no violation of separation. The problem is that the plate was not created through these channels, but was specifically endorsed by the state legislature. This is clearly a violation of separation. If they had creasted a set of plates for different religions represented by people in the state, this would not be a conflict. They didn't. They chose to promote one religion as the state religion.

    Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell said residents asked for a way to express their beliefs, and legislators responded.

    (Christian) Residents asked for a way to express their beliefs (in Christianity), and legisltors responsed (with a plate worshipping a Christian God).


    But the AP article (none / 0) (#21)
    by A DC Wonk on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:36:35 AM EST
    here says that the $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders requirement still applies.

    I'm not arguing, just being confused.  If the AP article is accurate, what need is there for the law?


    It says he is willing to put up the money... (none / 0) (#30)
    by dianem on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:50:19 AM EST
    ... not that the plates moved through the same process as those created by individuals. If he had simply done that from the outset - put down $4,000 to create a plate instead of having it created as a political stunt in an election year, then there would be little controversy.

    yes, that's what I would assume, too (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by A DC Wonk on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:52:44 AM EST
    but I'd rather know the facts more before I criticize.

    I'm mostly disappointed with the reporting for being sloppy in describing exactly what this law does or why it was needed.

    Again, if I had to guess, I'd guess you're right, but if it's a public law, I'd rather not guess and read it (or a specific description of it) myself.


    the lt. gov. (none / 0) (#35)
    by Molly Pitcher on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 11:48:23 AM EST
    said he would pay the $4000 for the plates. (template, I assume.)  There is thought here that the lt. gov. himself feels a need for the plate: first he got caught speeding in city limits, then he cracked up his airplane.  Just playng safe, guys.

    Not a balancing act (none / 0) (#34)
    by Valhalla on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 11:03:36 AM EST
    The government of SC is not hindering the freedom of religion in any way.  Even if they only allowed one generic license plate with no way to customize it for one's religion.  Freedom of religion applies to the practice of religion, and is much, much more circumscribed than people think.

    Putting your religious iconography on a license plate isn't the practice of any religion (that I know of, I'd have to look into the FSM).  But even if it were, the state can ban any activity as long as the ban is neutral in its application, meaning not specifically aimed at prohibiting a particular religious practice.  That's why the law banning use of peyote in religious ceremonies was upheld in the 80s.  (since that ruling most states have legalized it, I believe, but they don't have to as a requirement of the Constitution).

    So SC could say 'no customized license plates' and be ok, they just can't say 'no license plates with crosses'.


    Well, let's see if they'll print one that says (none / 0) (#6)
    by Angel on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:17:54 AM EST
    "I Don't Believe."  Can you imagine the uproar that would create?    

    Let's see if they are interested in (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:31:31 AM EST
    wasting more taxpayer time in the legislature covering all the possible iterations of religious belief - while South Carolian still remains one of the poorest and least educated states in the nation.  But hell they got Jesus on their license plates!

    indeed, that's exactly why this is so odius (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by A DC Wonk on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:46:59 AM EST
    I think it was Madison who used the phrase "tyranny of the majority."

    I Want To Believe (with UFO) (none / 0) (#22)
    by Fabian on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:40:48 AM EST
    Or with Flying Spaghetti Monster icon.

    I'd have to go with FSM.  People would laugh at FSM, but with UFOs they'd just think you were a kook.


    All or none... (none / 0) (#7)
    by Artoo on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:19:31 AM EST
    If they provide one for everyone, would that be better? I would think some religions actually frown on this kind of display altogether, so who knows...

    He11 Why Not (none / 0) (#10)
    by MO Blue on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:22:45 AM EST
    Fits perfectly in this time when presidents are "called to serve" by a Christian god.

    Democrats have IMO no reason to complain because we support this type of committed Christian called to serve rhetoric complete with a haloed presidential nominee.  

    This will provide the GOP with another (none / 0) (#14)
    by oculus on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:26:25 AM EST
    Rev. Wright moment, as the spokesperson for the opposition is a UCC minister.  What will Obama say?

    Meh. The TUCC is NOT (none / 0) (#24)
    by Fabian on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:42:05 AM EST
    representative of the rest of the UCC.

    Your comment is accurate. (none / 0) (#28)
    by oculus on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 10:48:31 AM EST
    I don't believe for a second (none / 0) (#36)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Jun 20, 2008 at 12:31:00 PM EST
    that S. Carolina was lacking 400 car-owners who would put in a request for such a license plate, nor that the SC citizens would not have come up with the $4000 to create the stamps for the plates.

    Clearly, the decision to use the legislature to  bypass the normal route of getting this license plate was a big ol' panda bear.

    And the ACLU, Jewish Congress, TChris, etc., who have helped put the issue on so many people's radar, are doing exactly what was wanted of them.