Americans United’s legal action against South Carolina’s “Christian” license plate has brought out the worst in some people.
At a Jan. 6 rally at the People’s Baptist Church in the town of Greer, more than 400 people gathered to protest a federal court’s decision halting production of the plate, which features a bright yellow cross, a stained-glass window and the words “I Believe.” The rhetoric was intemperate, inaccurate and frequently downright ugly.
The Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported that Pastor Arnold Hiette was “red-faced and angry.” He shook his fist “alongside his Bible” as he told attendees that the “four complainants – especially the Unitarian – and one judge who took away the people’s right to witness via their vehicle tags ‘along with the ACLU, they’re going to burn in hell.’”
How do you begin responding to something so wrong-headed as this?
It might be useful to point out that Hiette is perhaps an imperfect commentator on the lawsuit, since he couldn’t even get the facts right. The ACLU has nothing to do with this case. It was brought by Americans United on behalf of four South Carolina clergy and two groups representing minority faith communities.
As for who’s going to burn in hell, the last time we checked, Christian theology taught that decisions such as that are made by God, not some overwrought pastor. Singling out the Unitarian plaintiff – the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones – was an especially crude and intolerant touch. So much for interfaith harmony!
What’s worse is that this nonsense was implicitly endorsed by two of South Carolina’s top elected officials. Attorney General Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer showed up at the rally to bemoan alleged “persecution” against Christians.
“There is free speech for every group in this state besides Christians,” Bauer said. “Every citizen has the right to free speech in this country. I don’t understand why witnessing in public is considered unconstitutional. You don’t even have to be a Christian to believe everyone deserves the freedom of speech.”
So there’s no free speech for Christians in South Carolina? Really? No South Carolina pastors appear on television or sermonize on radio? They don’t publish tracts or maintain church Web sites? You don’t see their church booths at county fairs?
“Witnessing in public” is not unconstitutional. Believers in South Carolina are perfectly free to express their faith and urge others to adopt it. Churches can run ads, host public events, pass out fliers in neighborhoods, visit people door to door and engage in numerous other evangelistic activities.
Here is what religious groups cannot do: Ask the government to help them in these efforts. Creation of the “I Believe” plate by the legislature ran afoul of this standard, so the court struck it down.
The real irony of Bauer’s bombastic statement is that it was uttered during a highly publicized rally that, even with its intolerance and hateful rhetoric, is a perfect example of free speech in action. Even as he complained that Christians lack free speech, Bauer was proving that they do!
No one is trying to stop Hiette or any Christian minister in the state from saying what’s on their minds or spreading faith – through non-government channels. South Carolina went wrong because it took official actions to endorse Christianity by creating a special license plate for one tradition.
No other religion got a special, legislature-approved license plate bearing its own religious symbols. In fact, some South Carolina lawmakers made it clear that certain other faiths shouldn’t even bother to ask for one.
Asked if he would support a Wiccan license plate, state Sen. Yance McGill, who supported the “I Believe” plate, quickly said no.
“That’s not what I consider to be a religion,” McGill told the Associated Press. Other lawmakers indignantly derided the idea of a Muslim plate.
Now we see Bauer and McMaster eagerly trying to portray themselves as defenders of the plate and the Christian faith. Interestingly, both men plan to run for governor in 2010. Did it occur to anyone at the Greer rally that maybe these two are just angling for votes?
One more thought on this: South Carolina AU member Herb Silverman recently sent us a letter to the editor that appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier. In it, a local man complained that an outside group in Washington, D.C., was stirring up trouble and opined that no one should care what AU thinks.
Wrong again. Americans United, as an organization, had no power to sue in a case like this. We are representing local plaintiffs. As soon as word of the “I Believe” plate hit the news, we started getting calls from South Carolinians asking about a lawsuit.
Opposition to this plate is home grown. Lots of people – including many Christians – don’t want the government of South Carolina to “help” Christianity (or any other religion).
We have some advice for attendees at the Greer rally: Ranting, raving and spewing intolerance is not likely to make your faith more appealing to people. Neither is whining and playing the victim card.
Try being more Christ-like in your approach. Instead of damning to hell those you perceive to be your opponents, try talking to them. Try to grasp their point of view.
Maybe then you will understand that modeling true Christian compassion does more to spread your faith than any government-issued license plate ever will.