Illicit License

Why Four Clergy And Other Religious Groups Challenged South Carolina's Sectarian Car Tags

A parishioner recently told me, “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m proud that my minister is involved in a lawsuit.” I have to say that I am proud, too, to join two other ministers, a rabbi and a Hindu organization in a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina, filed on our behalf by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

At issue is the creation by our General Assembly of a Christian license plate, featuring a bright-yellow cross superimposed on a church stained-glass window and bearing the words “I Believe.” Our state government is clearly giving preferential treatment to a particular religion. The legislature is not creating a license plate for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Pagans. Atheists, agnostics and humanists cannot order an “I Don’t Believe” plate.

The law to create a Christian license plate, along with another law passed during the most recent session of the General Assembly to post the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer on public buildings, implies that Christianity is the official state religion. I wish our legislators would read the Constitution as avidly as they read public opinion polls. The First Amendment plainly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, this prohibition applies to state governments as well.

I also wish they would read U.S. history, for while it is true that America is a nation of Christians, we are not a Christian nation, despite the misguided proclamations of the Religious Right to the contrary.

The framers of the Constitution were men of various religious persuasions – Christians, Unitarians, deists, theists and possibly some agnostics and atheists. None were born-again Christians in the vein of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. They wrote a Constitution that is thoroughly secular, with no mention of God, Jesus or Christianity. In addition to the prohibition against a state religion and government interference in religious matters, the Constitution also prohibits “religious tests” for public office.

The framers could have formally recognized Christianity in the Constitution. In fact, a few delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted to do just that, but that theocratic view of government lost out to the view of Thomas Jefferson, a deist, who told Baptists in Danbury, Conn., that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.”

A Baptist contemporary of Jefferson, John Leland, also argued for the wall of separation: “Government has no more to do with religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods; and let government protect him in doing so.” They don’t make Baptists like that anymore.

In a letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., George Washington affirmed that Jews, too, have freedom of worship in America: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Washington’s administration even negotiated a treaty with Muslim leaders of North Africa, which was unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by the next president, John Adams, a Unitarian.

The Treaty of Tripoli makes clear that the United States is not a Christian nation: “As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, and tranquility of Muslims.” (I wish that the evangelical Christians who call for a holy war against Muslims would read U.S. history, as well.)

Neither is South Carolina a Christian state. Our legislators are elected to represent all South Carolinians, not simply those of the majority religion. In America – and in South Carolina – there are no second-class citizens.

Well, there are not supposed to be.

The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia and president of the Columbia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The essay appeared first in The State, a Columbia, S.C., daily newspaper.