S.C. Federal Judge:"I Believe" License Plates Violate First Amendment
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly warned that “government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization.” .... 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.”
...Despite such clearly established law, this state’s limited resources have been used to promote, pass, and defend a state law, the “I Believe” Act, which authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles (“the DMV”) to issue a license plate which must contain “the words ‘I Believe’ and a cross superimposed on a stained glass window. ” S.C. Code Ann. § 56-3-10510. Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular.The Judge didn't buy the supporter's arguments:
[T]he “I Believe” Act (1) authorizes a single plate with a uniquely Christian message, (2) was sponsored and approved solely as the result of governmental action, and (3) presents its message in a manner that is not available except through the legislative approval process (necessary to allow the inclusion of both motto and symbol). The first of these facts precludes a finding of any “context” which would save it from unconstitutionality.
On the "I Believe Act":
The “I Believe” Act had its genesis in Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer’s desire to do here what had been unsuccessful in the state of Florida–to gain legislative approval of a specialty plate promoting the majority religion: Christianity. 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 nnecessary (and expensive) litigation.
The Act passed both the S.C. Senate and the House unanimously in 2008. It became law without the Governor’s signature. It reads:
The Department of Motor Vehicles may issue “I Believe” special motor vehicle license plates to owners of private motor vehicles registered in their names. The plate must contain the words “I Believe” and a cross superimposed on a stained glass window. The biennial fee for this special license plate is the same as the fee provided in Article 5, Chapter 3 of this title. The guidelines for the production of this special license plate must meet the requirements contained in Section 56-3-8100.
The judge even awarded attorneys' fees and costs to the Plaintiff-opponents of the Act.
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