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UU minister challenges S.C. 'I believe' license plates

Judge calls legislature's plans to issue license plates depicting a cross a violation of church-state separation.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Design for a proposed license plate that Florida rejected in April. The South Carolina plate would have looked similar. (Faith in Teaching via Associated Press)

Thanks in part to the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia, the state of South Carolina won’t be issuing Christian-themed license plates anytime soon.

Jones was one of six plaintiffs who brought suit against South Carolina officials last spring who wanted to issue a plate featuring a cross, a stained-glass window, and the words “I Believe.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the plates on behalf of Jones; the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, a United Methodist minister; Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus; the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight, a Disciples of Christ minister; the Hindu American Foundation; and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

On December 11, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from issuing or manufacturing the plates because federal courts would likely find the law that created the plates a gross violation of the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion.

In a legal brief, Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan argued the “I Believe” license plate would constitute government favoritism toward one religion and would be a clear endorsement of Christianity by the state legislature. Lawmakers had voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating the plates.

The state has until January 31 to appeal the decision to the full Court of Appeals. In her ruling Currie said it would be highly unlikely that the state would prevail if it appealed.

When the state began moving last spring toward authorizing the plates, Jones formed a local chapter of Americans United to oppose the measure. He also agreed to be one of the plaintiffs.

He and the other plaintiffs held a half dozen public debates on the issue. “What we consistently heard was that we were trying to suppress freedom of religious expression. That’s just not the case. We were simply opposing government-endorsed religion,” he said.

In the debates he cautioned supporters that “if a religion continues to allow the government to endorse it, that opens the door to government shaping that religion as well. And it’s not good for democratic government either. It says if you don’t belong to the majority religion you’re a second-class citizen.”

According to one local news report, a Baptist minister told his congregation that four of the plaintiffs, and especially the Unitarian, were going to “burn in hell” for their opposition.

Said Jones: “I was surprised at the lack of reasoning on the part of opponents. And the vitriol. A lot of people seem to believe there’s a liberal secular conspiracy to take religion out of society. We see it as simply defending the First Amendment.”

Americans United meetings are held at the UU Fellowship of Columbia. Jones said the 180-member congregation has been very supportive of his involvement in this issue.

The court decision doesn’t mean that South Carolina won’t some day have “I Believe” plates. Supporters are free to form a private group and sponsor the plates. If at least 400 people agree to purchase them the state will produce them, just as it does other specialty plates, such as those sponsored by colleges, wild turkey supporters, square dance and golf enthusiasts, and secular humanists, whose plate sports an American flag and the slogan “In Reason We Trust.”

Asked if he himself would consider a license plate with a religious perspective, Jones noted, “My religion won’t fit on a license plate.”

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