When the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones heard that the South Carolina legislature had voted to create a special license plate bearing Christian symbols and the words “I Believe,” he took alarm.
It’s not that Jones has a problem with religion. He pastors a Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Columbia and believes in religious freedom for all. But Jones is equally adamant that the government should stay out of the business of promoting any specific religion or even religion generally.
“As a minister, I’m concerned that whenever government meddles in religion, it begins to subtly shape the religion,” Jones said.
But Jones did more than just get upset. He took action, joining forces with three other clergy – the Rev. Dr. Robert M. “Monty” Knight, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus and the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers – to serve as plaintiffs in a June 2008 lawsuit challenging the “I Believe” license plate.
Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church and State represented the four, as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in a legal action against South Carolina state officials.
Last month, the team effort paid off in a big way when a federal court issued a strong ruling striking down the state’s official “Christian” license plate.
U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie’s 57-page opinion is a powerful affirmation of the importance of church-state separation.
“This case,” she observed in her Nov. 10 decision, “presents a textbook example of the need for and continued vitality of” the First Amendment provision barring any governmental “establishment” of religion.
South Carolina officials, Currie ruled, made a mistake when they approved the “I Believe” plate.
“Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular,” Currie held.
“When the state voluntarily creates a Christian plate and no other religious or non-religious philosophy plate,” the judge ruled, “the state has violated [church-state separation] because the effect is that religion, and in this case the particular religion of Christianity, is endorsed, promoted and advanced by the state.”
Americans United hailed the Summers v. Adams ruling.
“This is great news,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, in a press statement. “Government must never be allowed to express favored treatment for one faith over others. That’s unconstitutional and un-American.
“Some officials seem to want to use religion as a political football,” Lynn added. “That’s an appalling misuse of governmental authority, and I am thrilled that the judge put a stop to it.”
Jones was relieved as well. As a pro-separation pastor in the Bible Belt, he is all too familiar with Religious Right-based attacks on the church-state wall.
“It’s a constitutional issue that was at stake, and I think those kinds of comments reflect how we no longer really appreciate the principle of separation of church and state,” Jones told Church & State.
“At one time,” he added, “we regarded that as a unique American contribution to the act of governance. And the Religious Right has done such a good job recasting that as some type of myth that a lot of people don’t appreciate it or think it’s true. That’s unfortunate because we have seen what happened when we don’t respect that principle.”
Jones’ views were shared by co-plaintiff Knight, who told WCBD-TV in Charleston, “Religion is protected by keeping it as far away from government as possible.”
How did the state of South Carolina get to this point?
It goes back to the summer of 2008, when Palmetto State officials got the idea that a special “Christian” license plate would be popular. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer found out it was being considered in Florida and became an enthusiastic promoter of the idea.
Private organizations such as university alumni groups, fraternal bodies and cause-related movements can apply to get special license plates through the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The process involves some paperwork, and groups that want a plate must pay $4,000 in start-up costs and demonstrate that they have at least 400 people interested in buying it.
The “I Believe” plate never went through that process. Rather than wait for a private group to act, South Carolina legislators passed a special law ordering the DMV to create one.
Lawmakers even waded into the design business. The license plate, they mandated, must feature the words “I Believe” and “a cross superimposed on a stained glass window.”
Even as they were scheming to produce a special “Christian” tag, state legislators made it clear no other religion could expect that preferred treatment.
Rep. Bill Sandifer, a Seneca mortician, was asked about the possibility of a Muslim plate and replied, “Absolutely and positively no.” When Sen. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree real estate broker, was asked about the possibility of a Wiccan plate, he ruled it out. Wicca, he said, is “not what I consider to be a religion.” (Bauer took a similar line when asked about a plate for Islam. He replied, “I would not because that is not the group I support.”)
Backed by Bauer, lawmakers quickly began lining up religious support for the “I Believe” crusade. Associated Baptist Press reported that the lieutenant governor decided to tap into the most powerful religious network in the state: Southern Baptist churches.
In the South Carolina Senate, the bill was co-sponsored by McGill, who acted at Bauer’s suggestion, and Sen. Larry Grooms. Both men belong to Baptist churches, and Grooms, like Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster, another plate booster, has announced he is running for governor.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Bob Walker was the lead advocate of the legislation. Walker is a deacon at the First Baptist Church in Landrum.
The lawmakers also got help from the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Joe Mack, director of the denomination’s Office of Public Policy, pushed the plate in a series of columns in the Baptist Courier.
In one column, Mack wrote, “I am thankful that we live in a state where we can publicly proclaim our belief in Christ. I appreciate living in a place where we now can pray in Jesus’ name at public events and meetings without worrying about a lawsuit. We are blessed to have public servants who offer and pass legislation to make these freedoms possible.”
Americans United tried to persuade lawmakers not to create the plate, but to no avail. The legislation sailed through both chambers of the legislature unanimously. Gov. Mark Sanford had reservations about the scheme but allowed the measure to become law without his signature.
Left with no other options, AU went to court.
What happened next is predictable: Although they are rivals for the governor’s mansion, Bauer and McMaster joined forces to launch a media offensive, lining up fundamentalist clergy throughout the state to host pro-plate rallies.
Southern Baptist lobbyist Mack surfaced at a rally in Simpsonville on March 17, 2009. During the rally, Mack bragged about his ability to get the attention of legislators and lauded Bauer as “the guy that got it started, got it through the General Assembly and into law.”
Bauer spoke during this event and at an earlier one that took place Jan. 6 in Greer. During these rallies, he insisted that Christians were being treated unfairly because South Carolina has a license plate promoting non-belief. The line wowed the crowds, but it is at best a half-truth.
The plate Bauer was referring to features the phrase “In Reason We Trust” and is sponsored by the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, a group that went through the normal channels to win approval for it. The Humanists got the plate by applying to the DMV, putting up the money and finding people who wanted the tag; they did not seek action from the legislature.
The rallies featured plenty of intemperate rhetoric. During the Greer event, the Rev. Arnold Hiette worked up the crowd by assuring them that the plaintiffs in the case are “going to burn in hell!” (For good measure, Hiette told the crowd that the ACLU is headed to hell as well – even though that group is not a party to the case.)
In the end, the rallies probably did more harm than good.
In her opinion, Judge Currie discussed them at length, noting that the events “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 judge also bluntly rejected Bauer’s crusade on behalf of the sectarian symbol.
“Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin,” Currie observed, “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 ruling wasn’t a surprise. The judge telegraphed her intentions on Dec. 11, 2008, when she issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from producing the “I Believe” tags.
In the preliminary ruling, Currie noted that laws must have a non-religious purpose, must refrain from advancing or inhibiting religion and must not foster excessive entanglement between church and state. She asserted that the act creating the “I Believe” plate violated all three of these standards.
Currie’s Nov. 10 decision cemented the earlier ruling.
Not surprisingly, Bauer was furious over Currie’s decision. In a statement released at a press conference the day of the ruling, the lieutenant governor blasted Currie for adopting “an abstract separation of church and state” and called 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.
“I could say that this is yet another example of judicial activism, of federal judges out of control,” Bauer blustered. “My instincts tell me that it’s even deeper than that. I think it’s another attack on Christianity, and I’m not going to sit by and watch this one happen.”
Vowing to pursue an appeal, Bauer continued, “I believe that every South Carolinian has the right to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and choose among dozens and dozens of license plates the one particular tag that reflects something they want to share with the rest of the world about their personality and beliefs. I am proud and unrelenting in my support of the Legislature’s unanimous enactment of this plate.”
In media interviews, Bauer continued to claim that Christians had lost their right of free speech. He repeatedly overlooked the fact that an “I Believe” plate could be created if it were sponsored by a private organization and submitted to the DMV through the standard review process.
(One Religious Right group may be on the way to doing that. After the ruling, the Palmetto Family Council, an arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, announced it was registering the name “I Believe” as a way of getting a similar tag through the DVM process.)
Bauer’s rhetoric was such a distortion of the facts that it led Jones to speculate about the lieutenant governor’s real agenda.
“Any group can get a plate through the normal channels,” Jones remarked. “I have to believe he knows that. His statements are suspicious because he is running for governor, and we know that in this state, the Religious Right is a large voting bloc.”
AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said she is happy with the court’s ruling. Khan argued the case in Columbia before Judge Currie, assisted by AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth J. Stevens. (Aaron J. Kozloski of Capitol Counsel, a Columbia, S.C. law firm, served as local counsel.)
South Carolina officials, Khan said, would do better to drop the case before they squander more taxpayer money.
“Government must never be allowed to play favorites when it comes to religion,” said Khan. “That’s a fundamental constitutional rule, and I am delighted that the judge has reminded South Carolina officials of that fact.”