(CN) – A South Carolina license plate bearing the image of a cross before a stained-glass window and the phrase “I Believe” violates the separation of church and state, a federal judge ruled.
The license plate was established by a state law called the “I Believe” Act, which Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer helped push through after a move to create a similar plate in Florida failed.
The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued in June 2008 on behalf of two Christian pastors, a humanist pastor and a rabbi in South Carolina, along with two religious nonprofits.
The primary effect of the “I Believe” Act “is to promote a specific religion, Christianity,” U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie wrote.
State laws promoting one religion over others have been illegal since the nation’s founding, she said.
“Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same,” Currie wrote. “The statute is clearly unconstitutional, and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation.
“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly warned that ‘government may not promote or affiliate itself with any religious doctrine or organization,” she said.
Currie noted that the “I Believe” Act made no provision for other religions to put their symbols on license plates.
The judge struck down the Act, issued a permanent injunction against the plate’s marketing, manufacture and distribution, and awarded court costs to the plaintiffs.
Immediately after Currie’s ruling was announced, Lt. Gov. Bauer lashed out at Currie, calling her a “liberal judge appointed by [President] Bill Clinton.”
He further derided the ruling as “another attack on Christianity” and claimed that Currie was “using her personal wishes to overrule the Legislature and the will of the thousands of South Carolinians who want to purchase the tags.”
Mark Plowden, a spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, said his boss was disappointed in and disagrees with the ruling. He said McMaster, who, like, Bauer, is competing in next June’s GOP primary for governor, is now considering whether to appeal.
At least one faith-based organization, the Palmetto Family Council, has said it will apply to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to get its own plate with the words “I Believe” on it. State law allows private groups to apply for tags with a message. Scores of organizations already do so, according to the agency’s Web site.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the Rev. Robert M. Knight, pastor of First Christian Church in Charleston; Rev. Thomas Summers, a retired Methodist minister from Columbia; Sanford Marcus, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia; and the Rev. Neal Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia.
They were joined by the nonprofit Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Defendants were Marcia Adams, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and Jon Ozmint, director of the Department of Corrections, because prison inmates make the license plates.