During the past few months, Dr. Tom Summers has spent much of his free time advocating against South Carolina’s government-endorsed “Christian” license plate.
It hasn’t been an easy task, considering the popularity of the plates in some quarters. And despite being a Christian minister, he hasn’t been immune from attacks claiming he is acting “anti-Christian.”
“I received some emails that asked how I, as a Christian minister, could be involved with this,” Summers said.
“But what I told them is that it is very Christian to be involved in a matter like this,” Summers continued. “One of the core values of Christianity is equality and fairness. This case is wrapped up on a human level on the issue of fairness. For a license plate to be displayed that is government sanctioned only for one faith group, it makes other faith groups in our state feel very isolated.”
The retired United Methodist minister served as lead plaintiff in Americans United’s lawsuit, Summers v. Adams, which asked the court to halt South Carolina from producing an auto tag favoring one religious group over others.
This plate, unlike those requested by private groups and organizations, originated in the South Carolina legislature and was passed by statute. The plate features a cross, a stained-glass window and the words “I Believe.” No other faith group has been offered a similar plate, let alone those who want a plate stating, “I Do Not Believe.”
On Dec. 11, just before the plates were to be distributed, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie issued a preliminary injunction and ordered South Carolina to stop its plans to produce the tags, a victory achieved by Americans United’s legal team, led by Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan with assistance from AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth J. Stevens.
Currie noted that laws can be considered constitutional only if they have a non-religious purpose, refrain from advancing or inhibiting religion and don’t foster excessive entanglement between church and state.
“Based on the record now before the court,” Currie wrote, “the court finds it unlikely that the I Believe Act satisfies even one of these requirements. As the Act must satisfy all three requirements to survive constitutional scrutiny, the court concludes the Plaintiffs have made a strong showing of likelihood of success….”
Summers was pleased by the judge’s decisive ruling.
“Of course some legislators are going to continue to go ahead with some of their tricks” he said. “But this decision lets them know that there has to be a clear line of separation between church and state. The state cannot be entangled in religious matters. And now they know there are people out there looking at these issues who won’t let them get by with these types of things.”
That’s what Americans United hopes for, too. But victory won’t come easily. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMasters has already urged the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to appeal.
“I am extremely disappointed in the court’s ruling, and feel the ‘I Believe’ license tag is completely constitutional,” McMasters said.
If the DMV chooses to appeal the decision, AU will be ready. The state already failed in its appeal defending a law allowing a “Choose Life” plate back in 2006. It’s astonishing, and a waste of taxpayer funds, that state officials would want to continue pushing this when it is clearly a violation of church-state separation, Khan said.
“The ‘I Believe’ license plate sends the message that South Carolina has a favored religion,” the AU legal director said. “That’s one message the state is not permitted to transmit.”
Government officials backing the plate made it clear that they would not create a tag for any other religious belief. In a CNN interview, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who put up the $4,000 deposit required to put the license plate into production, said he would never do the same for a plate honoring Islam.
“I would not because that is not the group I support,” he said.
Members of the legislature echoed the same thought. State Sen. Yance McGill (D-Kingstree), who pushed the bill creating the plate through the Senate in a couple of days without even holding a public hearing or a debate, told the Associated Press back in May, “I welcome any religion tags.”
But when he was asked later if he would support a Wiccan tag, McGill changed his tune.
“Well,” he said, “that’s not what I consider to be a religion.” Asked about a Buddhist tag, he said, “I’d have to look at the individual situation. But I’m telling you, I firmly believe in this tag.”
Rep. Bill Sandifer also backed the “Christian” plate, but again reinforced that he would never do the same for a plate featuring Islamic symbols and language.
“Absolutely and positively no,” Sandifer said. “I can’t tell you what 169 of my colleagues would do. But I would not because of my personal belief, and because I believe that wouldn’t be the wish of the majority of the constituency in this house district.”
Many critics of the plate believed that South Carolina’s government officials, through these statements and in approving the “Christian” tag, made adherents of other faiths feel like second-class citizens. For that reason, four South Carolina clergy – Summers, the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, the Rev. Dr. Robert Knight and Rabbi Sanford Marcus – joined the lawsuit, which was filed June 19. (The Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee also signed on.)
“I wish our legislators would read the Constitution as avidly as they read public opinion polls,” Jones, a Unitarian minister, wrote in a column for The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper (See “Illicit License.”)
Summers and Knight, both Christian leaders, also saw the legislators’ decision to approve this plate as demeaning to the faith they cherish.
“They are taking a Christian symbol and using it for marketing and advertising purposes,” Summers said. “This is an abuse and misuse of the Christian cross.”
And all the plaintiffs feared what this plate could mean for interfaith relations.
“South Carolina’s ‘I Believe’ license plate feels like a slap in the face,” Summers, Marcus and Jones wrote in an op-ed for Columbia’s Free-Times. “After striving to preserve religious harmony, we see the South Carolina General Assembly undercutting that work by approving a license plate that makes non-Christians feel threatened and unwanted in our communities.”
Summers told Church & State he has been working to explain his reasons for getting involved in the case. He sees it as an important opportunity to educate fellow South Carolinans.
“It is vital that as a Christian minister I speak out and be involved in matters like this that are discriminatory and unfair,” he continued.
Despite taking some criticism, Summers said he receives just as much praise for standing up against the tags. To show their support, some in South Carolina now call Summers the “‘I Believe’ man,” a name he is very proud of.
“It’s been a lot of work,” he said. “But it’s been very gratifying.”