Americans United Files Lawsuit Challenging South Carolina's 'i Believe' License Plate

Religious Liberty Watchdog Group Says License Plate Violates Constitution By Giving Preference To Christianity

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of several religious leaders and a religious organization whose First Amendment rights are violated by South Carolina’s “I Believe” license plate.

The new plate features the words, “I Believe,” accompanied by a depiction of a large, bright-yellow Christian cross superimposed on a multicolored stained glass church window.

Plaintiffs in the case include 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 as well as the Hindu American Foundation.

The Summers v. Adams lawsuit charges that the Christian plate gives preferential government treatment to one faith. It asks the court to prevent South Carolina officials from producing the plates.

“The state has clearly given preferential treatment to Christianity with this license plate,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “I can’t think of a more flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s promise of equal treatment for all faiths. I believe these plates will not see the light of day.”

The South Carolina legislature unanimously passed legislation to produce the license plate, and South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said he is willing to put up the required $4,000 to produce the plate, with the money to be reimbursed by the state later. The legislature has not proposed or made available a similar specialty plate for any other faith.

Gov. Mark Sanford allowed the bill to become law without his signature. 

In South Carolina, an individual can apply for a vanity plate less than seven characters long, but symbols and emblems are not permitted. Other specialty plates are created either by DMV approval or through the legislature. Plates approved by the DMV are subject to signification regulations, including “no slogans, names or other text.”

The Americans United lawsuit says the Christian license plate violates the separation of church and state as well as freedom of speech. It notes that other religions will not be able to get similar license plates expressing differing viewpoints, nor can a comparable “I Don’t Believe” license plate be issued.

The lawsuit was filed in Columbia, S.C., in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina.

“The state has made believers of non-Christian faiths feel that they are second-class citizens,” Lynn said. “Under our Constitution, that’s impermissible.”

Attorneys working on the case include AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Litigation Counsel Heather Weaver and AU Madison Fellow Nancy Leong. Aaron J. Kozloski of Capitol Counsel, a Columbia, S.C. law firm, is serving as local counsel.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.