South Carolina officials have decided not to appeal a federal court decision striking down a special “Christian” license plate.
On Nov. 10, 2009, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie ruled that the plate, which was to feature a large yellow cross, a stained-glass window and the words “I Believe,” clearly gives favored government treatment to one faith. In a summary judgment ruling, she ordered state officials not to issue the plate.
The legal battle goes back to 2008, when the South Carolina legislature passed special legislation ordering the Department of Motor Vehicles to create the “I Believe” tag. In doing so, the legislature bypassed procedures that allow private groups to request specialty auto plates.
Americans United, which had urged legislators not to pass the law, brought suit in June of 2008. The case, Summers v. Adams, was filed on behalf of four local clergy – the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones, as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
After losing the case, some state officials heatedly demanded an appeal – but that will not happen. South Carolina officials had until Dec. 10, 2009, to file an appeal of Currie’s ruling. They didn’t do so, bringing the legal tussle to a conclusion.
South Carolina will elect a new governor in November, and the license-plate issue had become prominent in the race. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster are both seeking the governor’s mansion, competing for the Republican nomination. During the litigation, both appeared at church-based rallies to support the tag, and both sharply criticized Currie’s decision.
In a statement released at a press conference the day of the ruling, Bauer 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.”
Demanding an appeal, Bauer added, “I could say that this is yet another example of judicial activism, of federal judges out of control. 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.”
One day later, McMaster’s campaign office released a video attacking the decision. In an accompanying press release, McMaster asserted that “liberals are using an increasingly sympathetic federal judiciary to re-write our Constitution to ban any and all religious expression in our schools, our government and the public square.”
Although both Bauer and McMaster talked about an appeal of Currie’s ruling, a decision about the case wasn’t up to them. Neither was a defendant in the lawsuit, and the state officials who were directly involved chose not to fight what was almost certainly a losing and expensive battle.
In addition, a private religious organization has announced that it will seek to create an “I Believe” license plate through the proper channels.