A Baptist minister in South Carolina says the clergy who serve as plaintiffs in Americans United’s challenge to a state-issued “Christian” license plate had better get ready to spend eternity in a very warm place.
The Rev. Arnold Hiette organized a rally on behalf of the “I Believe” license plate Jan. 6 at the People’s Baptist Church in the town of Greer. About 400 people attended, and, according to an account in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Hiette got a little excited.
The newspaper reported that Hiette was “red-faced and angry” and “shaking his fist alongside his Bible.”
Continued the report, “Hiette told the congregation 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.’”
Americans United, representing four clergy plaintiffs, challenged the sectarian license plate in court last year. The special plate, authorized by the legislature, includes a Christian cross, a stained-glass window and the words “I Believe.” (Despite Hiette’s claims, the ACLU is not involved in the case.)
AU argues that the state does not have the authority to create a special “Christian” license plate. On Dec. 11, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie agreed with Americans United and issued a temporary injunction barring the state from producing the plate. (See “No License To Discriminate!,” January 2009 Church & State.)
Americans United filed the lawsuit on behalf of four South Carolina clergy – the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones. (Jones is the especially hell-bound Unitarian.) Also joining the suit were the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Attendees at the rally signed petitions and listened to speeches from a wide array of “I Believe” supporters, including Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster, both of whom plan to run for governor in 2010.
“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.”
Bauer charged that secular groups can get special license plates and said Christians should as well. In fact, any group that provides enough orders can get a special tag through the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, subject to certain restrictions.
The “I Believe” plate is different because it was created specifically for one faith by the legislature.
No other tradition was given the same opportunity, and several legislators made it clear certain groups should not even apply. State Sen. Yance McGill, who supported the “Christian” plate, indicated that he would not support a Wiccan tag.
“That’s not what I consider to be a religion,” McGill told the Associated Press. Other lawmakers criticized the idea of a Muslim plate.
In an effort to help the public understand the issues in the case, Summers contributed an opinion column to Religion News Service, which was distributed nationwide.
“How could a Christian minister not be against a governmentally sponsored license plate?” asked Summers in the column. “When lawmakers chose to single out one religious group on a state-sanctioned license plate to the exclusion of all others, it shows an unfair and unconstitutional preference. What’s more, this action trampled on a core value resting at the heart of Christianity: equality.”
Concluded Summers, “If people want to proclaim their faith on their cars, there are a number of bumper stickers and emblems that can do the job. Just don’t expect the government of South Carolina – or any government, for that matter – to help you spread the message. It’s not the government’s job, and none of us should want it to be.”