Last month Americans United won a major legal victory when a federal court struck down the South Carolina legislature’s “Christian” license plate.
U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie said legislators ran afoul of the Constitution when they ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to produce the special “Christian” plate, which would have featured the words “I Believe” and a cross superimposed over a stained-glass window.
Some of our critics aren’t happy with the ruling. Fair enough. We don’t expect Religious Right groups and their political allies to be pleased. Our goal was to uphold the First Amendment.
While we expect our critics to express their displeasure, there is no excuse for the distortion of facts many of them have promoted in the media.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, for example, was a big booster of the plate. He has insisted that Currie’s ruling is a form of discrimination against Christians and pointed out that Humanists in the state have a special license plate bearing the phrase “In Reason We Trust.”
This claim has been echoed by other critics of the ruling, but it does not stand up to scrutiny.
It’s true that the Secular Humanists of the Low Country applied for and got a tag with the “Reason” slogan. But that organization moved through normal channels to get its plate. The Humanists paid the necessary fees, came up with a list of residents who said they’d like to have the plate and completed the necessary paperwork.
Lots of private groups in South Carolina go through this process to win approval for specialty tags. That’s not how the “I Believe” plate came to be. Instead, the legislature passed a special law mandating creation of a “Christian” tag.
What’s worse, several lawmakers made it clear they would not similarly honor Muslims, Buddhists and Wiccans. So there is discrimination here – but it emanates from the South Carolina legislature, not Americans United or the federal court.
The facts are clear: South Carolina legislators circumvented normal procedures and ordered that this sectarian license plate be produced. As Currie made clear, their actions had the effect of endorsing religion in violation of the First Amendment.
Bauer, South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster and others are angry that the court ruled against them and that the state has ended up squandering taxpayer money on this lawsuit.
For that, they have no one to blame but themselves. Distorting the facts of the lawsuit only makes their actions look all the more misguided.