Proposals to create two new “Christian” license plates in Florida – including one featuring the crucified head of Jesus – failed last month after Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other civil liberties groups warned that the action might spark a lawsuit.
State Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) proposed a plate depicting the head of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns as he died on the cross. At the same time, Sen. Ronda Storms (R-Brandon) proposed an “I Believe” plate bearing a stained-glass window and a cross.
Storms’ proposal is identical to a license plate approved by legislators in South Carolina. Americans United is currently litigating against state endorsement of that tag and has won a ruling from a federal court temporarily blocking creation of the plate.
After Siplin introduced the bill, some members of the legislature had concerns and asked him to describe the plate.
He replied, “It has a picture of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Civil liberties groups opposed the governmental preference for one faith. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League spoke out, as did Americans United.
In a letter to Florida senators, Americans United warned that legislative approval could bring litigation.
“Giving the state’s blessing to issue two license plates that would prominently display symbols and images of the majority religion would offend not only Floridians who are members of minority faiths but also Christians who believe it is inappropriate for the state to issue these kinds of license plates, because they co-opt the religious symbols, images and beliefs of their faith for the state’s benefit, thereby demeaning those sacred images,” Americans United asserted.
The letter was signed by Dena S. Sher, AU state legislative counsel; Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, vice president of AU’s Board of Trustees and president of AU’s Flagler County Chapter; and the Rev. Dr. Harry Parrott Jr., president of AU’s Clay County Chapter.
Storms is a frequent booster of Religious Right causes in the legislature who has worked to bring creationism and official prayer to public schools. Siplin’s motives are less clear. In 2008, he was accused of various campaign-finance complaints in connection with his race for office.
Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed both plates.
“If they [critics] don’t want one, they don’t have to buy one,” Crist told the St. Petersburg Times. “What does it say, ‘In God We Trust,’ on every piece on monetary coins and paper money we have? I think it’s fine.”
But others remained wary. The Tallahassee Democrat editorialized against the sectarian plates.
“Every vehicle on the road,” observed the newspaper, “has many square yards of painted surface on which owners are free to display spiritual messages and pictures of Jesus, whatever he might have looked like. But that little square foot of state-supplied license plate is no place for such a specifically religious message.”
Although the Florida Senate approved legislation to create both plates, the House of Representatives refused to go along. The proposals died after the legislature went out of session May 1.