S.C. Federal Judge:"I Believe" License Plates Violate First Amendment

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled yesterday that the state's "I Believe" license plates containing a picture of a religious cross, violate the First Amendment. His ruling is here (pdf).

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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    Seems people are going to keep (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by Inspector Gadget on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 02:53:14 PM EST
    on pushing until one of their efforts finally pays off and they get that pesky line between church and state erased.

    Now, had that plate been adorned with a picture of Santa Claus, I would have bought one :)

    The obvious counter to that is (5.00 / 7) (#2)
    by Fabian on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 02:56:02 PM EST
    a license plate that says:
    with an image of a flying saucer.

    I think we need a whole series (5.00 / 5) (#3)
    by nycstray on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:04:26 PM EST
    of "I Believe" plates. I'd like one for football, the Yankees, and of course, puppies and kittens {grin}

    "I Believe in the Power of Puppies"

    What better way to dilute their message :-p


    You left out (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by rdandrea on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:12:31 PM EST
    a "You gotta believe!" for the Mets

    {blush} (5.00 / 3) (#10)
    by nycstray on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:38:19 PM EST
    I was too focused on having an extraordinarily cute Dal puppy on a license plate :)

    It's frightening that it passed (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by byteb on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:08:05 PM EST
    the Senate and House unanimously. What's wrong with the lawmakers of South Carolina?

    The federal judge's contempt was clearly evident. His ruling was an artful evisceration of the Plantiff-opponents arguments...and asking them to pay attorneys' fees is very sweet, indeed.

    We are not the "buckle" of the (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by coast on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:17:30 PM EST
    bible belt for nothin'.

    there were (5.00 / 4) (#14)
    by cpinva on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:50:07 PM EST
    A long time ago... ...all the Puritans got on boats over in Europe. And you know where they sailed? Right here. And you know what they did? They started a country.

    johnny-come-latelies. go back, re-read that history book, starting in 1607, little place called "jamestown", in the virginia colony, 14 years before the puritans stumbled onto plymouth.

    the puritans left england/europe, to find religious freedom in the new world. upon their arrival, they immediately set about establishing a colony that denied religious freedom to everyone but themselves. great example there.

    heck, the jamestown colonists were honest enough to admit they were only in it for the money.

    i want a plate that says "i believe", with a picture of the flying spaghetti monster.

    Actually, the spread of (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by coast on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:06:50 PM EST
    Protestant Christianity was one of the foremost factors in establishing Jamestown.  King James, as head of the Church of England, did not want to give up more territory to the Spanish who were converting people to Roman Catholicism.

    I believe (5.00 / 3) (#18)
    by MO Blue on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:06:51 PM EST
    the S.C. Federal Judge made the correct ruling.

    I don't think (5.00 / 2) (#19)
    by jbindc on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:08:26 PM EST
    We all need to be insulting to people who adhere to some sort of organized religion.  Personally, I believe in God, and while I don't always go to church, it's kind of offensive to  "liberals" (those supposed to be open minded to all ideas, by definition) be making comments about believing in a "flying spaghetti monster". I don't care if anyone else believes, but I'm not going around making fun of atheists and calling them dim and closed-minded either.

    That being said, the issue at hand is the judge refusing to allow a clearly Christian reference on a state license plate.  I whole-heartedly agree with the judge in this.  Steve M is right - this wasn't even a close call.  If people want to express their religious views on their car (and I can't understand why they would want to anyway - to me that shows a sign of weakness in their faith) - they can buy a bumper sticker.

    I understand your point... (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by kdog on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 05:04:57 PM EST
    and of course it ain't cool to make fun of anybody in a derogatory way. Good-natured ribbing is fine though...if some believers can't handle good natured ribbing or questioning of their beliefs, thats their problem.  I expect all the out-there stuff I believe in to get questioned and joked about...I appreciate it actually.    

    What makes christians an easy and popular target is that there are just so many 'em, especially in government.  Sh*t I admire JC a lot as a human being, or at least the legend of JC, but thats where it ends for me...but party on christians!  Just don't take yourselves too seriously...and mind the church/state line...its there for your protection too.  It's scary this concept must be decided at the supreme level in SC, and legislators can't figure it out...scary yet unsuprising.


    I get that (none / 0) (#47)
    by jbindc on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 08:34:25 AM EST
    I think the Republican Party has helped to bastardize organized religion - whipping up their base, so that evangelical Christians and the Republican Party are so intertwined, so it's hard to tell them apart. And I certinaly don't mind jokes - I'm Catholic, and have certainly made jokes about priests and nuns (and I had two nuns in the family!), etc.  

    But when you get to the Bill Maher version of making "jokes", well, let's face it  Bill Maher is a bigot and he's offensive (Ben Affleck called him out on it on Maher's show a few years ago and told him exactly that).

    But it's not just in this post - it's all over this blog and other blogs, and on TV, and wherever.  People who hold themselves out as "liberals"  - many who feel superior because they are somehow more "enlightened" and better educated than the masses - often are the ones making comments about people who belong to an organized religion being less intelligent, act more like sheep, etc.  (See Obama's comment about bitter people who cling to their religion and their guns - it's that attitude).

    My point is - liberals get mad when someone uses "Un-PC" language or makes jokes about gays, African Americans, women, other ethnic groups etc., but find it perfectly acceptable to turn around and do the same thing about people they disagree with philosophically.

    It's hard to claim the high moral ground when you act like a hypocrite. That's my point.


    Again, I gotcha... (5.00 / 0) (#50)
    by kdog on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 09:18:51 AM EST
    thats why I am unapologetically un-pc and make fun of every sub-group...it certainly is hypocritical to rag on christians and take offense to the ragging of other sub-groups.

    Gotta disagree on Maher though...I don't find his comedic rants on religion offensive at all...just hysterical.  But you probably coulda guessed that:)

    I also think part of it is that the hardcore holy-rollers come off as so god damn sure of themselves...that attitude begs for ridicule.


    Gays, African Americans, women (none / 0) (#54)
    by MyLeftMind on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 04:43:57 PM EST
    and other ethnic groups aren't busy trying to take away someone else's rights. I don't care what people do in the privacy of their own home (or church) as long as their beliefs aren't negatively impacting the public sphere. Some 20-30 million people have been tortured and murdered by the Catholic church (most of those killed were women). Today, Christians deliberately use their version of the Bible to hurt me and my children. We don't have equal rights because many Christians think their god wants it that way. Sorry, but organized religions are often very detrimental to society.

    Someone wants to put a fish on their car, fine. It's like any other bumper sticker. But if they force their religion on the rest of us by plastering it on license plates, I'm against it. I use those public roads, and I don't want my kids to see our government-regulated, government-produced vehicle registration plates endorsing what I consider to be a cruel and abusive religion.


    Those plates are forcing religion on you? (none / 0) (#55)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 08:23:55 PM EST
    Who knew of the power in "I believe."

    Do the people have the same right to purchase a vanity plate saying "I believe" as do those saying "Go Gamecocks?"

    And while you have rights, don't others have rights? Especially when nothing is being forced on you.

    What's next? Tear down all the churches that have crosses? I mean your children are seeing those... as well as the "fish."

    I think you protest too much.


    I don't care about a vanity plate (none / 0) (#60)
    by MyLeftMind on Thu Feb 18, 2010 at 12:59:29 PM EST
    that says "I Believe." But a state sponsored VERSION of license plates that proclaims a Christian statement as part of the license plate itself is NOT the same as a vanity plate. Sounds like the judge agreed with people like me.

    JimakaPPJ, did you even look at the picture of the license plate in this article?

    I don't care about crosses on churches. I DO care about Christians trying to take over my secular government. Because theocracies always abuse those who don't follow their dogma. In this country, powerful religions are theoretically prevented from utilizing public resources to further their superstitions. For the most part, courts uphold this separation of church and state, but we've certainly seen a lot of cheating by Christians, including Eugene, Oregon's dishonest after-the-fact designation of a cross on public property as a war memorial.  

    As for the promotion of a cross as a symbol of salvation, well that's pretty silly since it's a device used by terrorists. Still, if people want to believe that perverted story that an all powerful god would let his kid get tortured to death in order to somehow save souls, that's their business. Personally, I think that story speaks more to man's tendencies to be violent than to the greatness of God. But believe what you want, that's what freedom of religion is all about. Just keep those beliefs where they belong - out of our government.


    I didn't take the facetious comments (5.00 / 3) (#30)
    by Peter G on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 06:08:15 PM EST
    as directed at believers in general.  I understand them as mocking the hypocrites who seek to pervert our system by hijacking majority political power in service of a particular religion, and at those who are too cowardly or lacking in principle to stand up to the bullies and hypocrites.

    whatever happened to the proud tradition (5.00 / 1) (#25)
    by Jen M on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 05:01:13 PM EST
    of putting a fish on your car?

    I see more of that than I have (none / 0) (#27)
    by coast on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 05:05:40 PM EST
    of this license place.  I've only seen one plate.

    I believe in the Bill of Rights (5.00 / 1) (#29)
    by Peter G on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 06:04:02 PM EST
    and in the independence of the judiciary.  No true democracy if either were lacking. It is part of the genius of our Constitution that our federal judges are appointed, not elected, and serve for life (or during their "good behavior," i.e., unless impeached).  Consider that every one of South Carolina's elected legislators, all of them, were apparently willing to violate their oaths of office to "protect and defend the Constitution" when they voted in favor of this patently unconstitutional law.  Now consider what the ruling might have been if Judge Currie had to worry, while drafting her opinion in this case, whether she would be re-elected when her ten-year term was up, like many state court judges must?  

    With (5.00 / 1) (#38)
    by CoralGables on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 09:15:46 PM EST
    Florida now having the option of choosing between 114 different license plates and growing constantly, I'd like to suggest a new motto for each state, "One State One Plate".

    Start a War Orphan charity, (5.00 / 0) (#48)
    by jpe on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 08:45:19 AM EST
    get the required amount of pre-orders, and per the law you'll be able to get your War Orphan plate.

    IIRC, courts have found that these plates are limited public fora, so there is a free speech interest in the content of the plate.

    With that in mind, what this case wasn't about was the right to religious plates.  Presumably, a church could go through the regular procedures and get an I Believe plate.  Rather, the establishment clause defect was that the legislature exempted the religious message from the regular process and gave it special treatment.

    vanity plate (none / 0) (#7)
    by diogenes on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:19:35 PM EST
    You pay the state money to say what you want on a vanity plate, barring hate speech or profanity.  I somehow doubt that selling stained glass images on vanity plates will lead to South Carolina creating an established church and burning heretics at the stake.

    Not sure about SC, but (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by Inspector Gadget on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:12:32 PM EST
    some states contribute to the "cause" on those themed plates. The ones that are for Wildlife send a portion to wildlife foundations, as an example.

    The Vanity part of a vanity plate is in the letters/numbers.

    You can have both....a vanity phrase on a themed plate.


    I agree about burning people (none / 0) (#8)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:23:04 PM EST
    at the stake.  In South Carolina they are more partial to hanging people.

    WOW! (none / 0) (#13)
    by coast on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:50:06 PM EST
    Feel the hate (none / 0) (#16)
    by Wile ECoyote on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:54:26 PM EST
    Liberal (none / 0) (#37)
    by Wile ECoyote on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 08:38:53 PM EST
    hate is not as bad, eh?

    It isn't hate. (5.00 / 1) (#49)
    by inclusiveheart on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 09:15:21 AM EST
    I'm from the South - Alabama.  My boyfriend is from South Carolina.  The comment struck me as extremely naive - and moreso culturally moe Boston than Birmingham or Charleston.  I grew up with people who are in the KKK.  I've known these fundamentalists my whole life.  I attended a Bible class where the hippie dippy "peace loving" instructors played really torturously bad Christian rock and proceeded to tell me about how evil all Jews are.  I know something about this place called the south.  Being honest is not being hateful.

    Horse crap (none / 0) (#59)
    by Wile ECoyote on Sat Nov 14, 2009 at 02:50:04 PM EST
    Name them.  If they are in the KKK name them.  

    A long time ago... (none / 0) (#9)
    by Dadler on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:23:53 PM EST
    ...all the Puritans got on boats over in Europe. And you know where they sailed? Right here. And you know what they did? They started a country.

    Ben Franklin.... (5.00 / 5) (#15)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:54:07 PM EST
    "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

    Thomas Jefferson....

    Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

    John Adams....

    Christianity, you will say, was a fresh revelation. I will not deny this. As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed? How has it happened that all the fine arts, architecture, painting, sculpture, statuary, music, poetry, and oratory, have been prostituted, from the creation of the world, to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud?

    The notion that we are a Christian Nation because of our roots is a myth.


    Apples and Oranges (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by Dadler on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:44:28 PM EST
    I know of what you quote, and appreciate the truth of it, I'm talking much earlier than that and a different truth.  This nation was really begun by the Puritans, that's what the Pilgrims were, pure religious fanatics, and they certainly influenced the culture and do to this day -- why do you think this nation is the capitol of Christian fundamentalism, its our real beginning. The "Founding Fathers" were born a hundred plus years later, and, yes, many were deists, although not all.  And I love that Jefferson put out his own version of the Bible, cutting out what he thought was all the gobbldygook.

    Burning Witches vs. 1st Amendment (none / 0) (#24)
    by Dadler on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 04:59:54 PM EST
    That is our real history, this constant struggle between our purely Puritanical origins as a nation, and the infinitely more secular ideals set down by the founders. But, make no mistake, religious fundamentalism in our living, breathing human population has been there from the first step off the Mayflower.  

    I always say... (5.00 / 1) (#28)
    by kdog on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 05:08:13 PM EST
    Australia lucked out...why couldn't we have been the prison colony and down under the religous persecuton getaway?

    They fled persecution (5.00 / 1) (#32)
    by jondee on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 06:45:58 PM EST
    to be the persecutors; from practically the moment they stepped off the ships. Check out some of the laws they enacted.

    And this looks to me like a transparently desperate attempt on the part of the yahoos to create a wedge-issue brouhaha: right up there with Glenn Beck's Woodrow Wilson conspiracy theories and Palin's idiocy concerning where we put the In God We Trust on currency.


    They fled persecution (none / 0) (#46)
    by Dadler on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 05:00:31 AM EST
    And they persecuted plenty when they had power in England. More, it can be argued, than the monarchy persecuted (and it did plenty of that). Cromwell was the Mullah Omar of English history.

    Heh (none / 0) (#12)
    by Steve M on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 03:48:28 PM EST
    Not a close case.

    Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Pass the Biscuits! (none / 0) (#31)
    by Angel on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 06:16:21 PM EST
    I couldn't resist.

    {Woof!~WooF!~} (5.00 / 1) (#39)
    by nycstray on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 09:24:40 PM EST
    I'll praise the Lord and sing Hallelujah! for biscuits!!!

    the Dot


    Cute! (none / 0) (#41)
    by Angel on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 09:59:30 PM EST
    I Believe (none / 0) (#33)
    by dead dancer on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 07:05:37 PM EST
    in 1001A.

    And I'm one sharp pencil.

    Correction (none / 0) (#34)
    by dead dancer on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 07:06:36 PM EST
    That link should read 10001A. Sry

    What happens to the plates? (none / 0) (#35)
    by abdiel on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 07:58:27 PM EST
    Do people with the plates have to return them?  

    And I wonder, could the SC legislature satisfy critics by simply offering plates with Muslim, Jewish, and "other" options (i.e. puppies, rainbows)?

    How would that help? (none / 0) (#36)
    by Inspector Gadget on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 08:14:48 PM EST
    Separation of church and state extends to all churches and all states :)

    But if the state allows a choice (none / 0) (#45)
    by abdiel on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 02:40:39 AM EST
    then it isn't an endorsement.  The judge's opinion seems to turn on the fact that the legislature singled out Christianity for the plates but didn't consider or allow other options.  

    What I want to know is whether it would still be considered an "endorsement" if the state allowed a choice but >90% of the people chose the Christian symbol.  


    Unfortunately (5.00 / 1) (#51)
    by Steve M on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 11:33:15 AM EST
    the scenario in which the State of South Carolina offers "Allahu Akbar" license plates is unlikely to play out.

    Yes, no doubt about it (none / 0) (#40)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 09:35:22 PM EST
    A vanity license plate with "I believe" on it is a terrible threat to democracy.

    Glad we stomped that out before the (gasp) Christmas Season.

    Can you read what I wrote? (none / 0) (#43)
    by jimakaPPJ on Wed Nov 11, 2009 at 10:28:06 PM EST
    No, I didn't think so.

    I imagine Jim (none / 0) (#52)
    by Steve M on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 11:34:53 AM EST
    would appreciate the advance warning that a Mooslem is a-coming.

    I guess the Bill of Rights is sort of like a Chinese menu - you only have to pick the ones you want!


    Since Jim and and a lot of other Southerns have (none / 0) (#56)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 08:25:44 PM EST
    protected you from a lot of bad things.... yes, I appreciated all they help I got.

    Too bad you couldn't be bothered.


    Pfffttt. (none / 0) (#53)
    by MyLeftMind on Thu Nov 12, 2009 at 04:28:22 PM EST
    If the only thing they wanted was a vanity plate, I could live with it. But no, they need to refuse marital rights to same-sex couples because their imaginary god says queers are evil.

    I see firsthand every single day what perverted religions do when they get their claws into government business. My straight kids don't have the same rights as your straight kids. This is much, much more than just vanity plates.

    (Thanks in advance to those Christians who don't try to oppress people like me. Perverted doesn't refer to your religion, only to the misinterpretations some Christians use to hurt other people in this world.)


    All is vanity (2.00 / 0) (#58)
    by diogenes on Fri Nov 13, 2009 at 12:44:08 PM EST
    If it really isn't about the vanity plates, then leave them alone and choose your battles, fighting about what's important.