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July 14th, 2008
10:02 AM ET

Pray as you drive. But a state license plate?

Jeffrey Toobin
CNN Senior Legal Analyst
AC360° Contributor

South Carolina is soon going to be offering a new option for its license plates: a rendering of a Christian cross over a stained-glass window and the words “I believe.” The question is whether this offer is constitutional.

License plates have already generated a surprising amount of litigation. As most people know, New Hampshire plates say, “Live free or die.” A Jehovah’s Witness, who objected to that message, taped it over, and he was prosecuted for tampering with the plate. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court said the prosecution was unconstitutional because the defendant had the right not to speak –- that is, not to display the words on his car.

The question in South Carolina is different. No one, of course, has to purchase the “I believe” plate, but does the mere offer become an endorsement of religion by the state? The state argues that this kind of plate is basically like a bumper sticker – a form of free speech for the car owner, which the state is just trying to accommodate. But those challenging the plates say that a license plate offered by the government is a very different thing that a bumper sticker. There is, for example, no comparable plate offered to non-Christians, or non-believers. According to these critics, any kind of government-sanctioned plate, which endorses only one religion, amounts to an impermissible entanglement between church and state.

A similar controversy is ongoing in Tennessee, where there is a proposal for a plate that says “Choose Life,” with a portion of the state fee going to a private adoption service. (Many states have plates with charitable themes – like supporting wildlife, or the state university football team – and the state steers fees to support these causes.) This, I think, is going to be harder for the state to defend, because there is a direct financial tie between the plate and the favored charity. True, as in South Carolina, no one is compelled to buy a “Choose Life” plate, and the state merely facilitates the money transfer and does not provide taxpayer money, but the connection between church and state is even closer here.

The constitutional issues in South Carolina are, to my mind, very difficult. Once you get into the nitty-gritty of issues like this one, questions that seem simple – like, “What is speech?” “When is the government speaking?” – suddenly get a lot harder. Look for a long journey through the courts for “I believe.”


Filed under: 360° Radar • Jeffrey Toobin
soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. jstanaka

    It's optional!!! Just like abortion!!! Options!! America is freeeeee~

    The government SHOULD be secular, of course. But how is a license plate any different from a bumper sticker, really? It goes on your car, it makes a statement, some people love it, some people hate it. The only difference is the supplier - the state has offered to endorse your beliefs, in a way. This goes back to the "In God we Trust" issue and the issue with that one line in the Pledge. As long as we're given options, people can make as many religious license plates, curtains, bedspreads and doormats as they want. Just don't start forcing them on me - do that, and I'll start screaming.

    July 15, 2008 at 5:29 am |
  2. minta

    I think there is a famous quote somewhere that says:

    "South Carolina is too small to be considered a republic and too large to be considered an insane asylum.

    With regard to the license plates......honestly, consider the source. What do you expect.

    Friends-fear runs wild and deep in this state.

    July 15, 2008 at 4:35 am |
  3. DNB-New Hampshire

    Ever heard of the concept of seperation of church and state? It is oneof our founding priciples. Now, more and more, that line is being blurred and crossed. As it does, our basic freedoms become more and more endangered. Wake up people!

    July 15, 2008 at 1:28 am |
  4. Duncan

    People need to learn what the seperation of church and state is, this has nothing to do with church, it has to do with choice, even with religon we have the choice to decide if we want to believe or no, the choice to decide if we want abortion or life, choice is what it is about!!!!

    July 15, 2008 at 12:09 am |
  5. Duncan

    Yes, the first amendment, we do need to understand that it is about the freedom of religion, and that includes all religions not just one, we all should have the freedom to believe as we indevidually wish! and the right to express our belifes, but we should remember that the others have that same right, except that and move forward to a beter way of life.

    July 15, 2008 at 12:04 am |
  6. JLPair

    This is an option and not forced on anyone. South Carolina has a large variety of plates which includes Colleges, Support Our Troops, In God We Trust, NASCAR, Sons of Confederate Veterans and many more. There is a possibility there will always be a negative opinion or controversal issue on any of the plates. The "I Believe" plates will be on personal vehicles and is not forcing religion on anyone.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:46 pm |
  7. Brenda Langston

    As a South Carolina native I can safely say that this state has been the one to push constitutional limits to the edge. This is the same state that had to remove the Confederate flag from the Capital. Why would anyone want to keep a flag up or a license plate that would offend anyone else? It is not being PC it is simply being considerate of others.

    Our constitution was written to 1) protect us from a state established religion and 2) to protect us from a government that forgets they are to serve the people and not expect the people to serve them. Bottom line...the state has NO business placing any religious symbols, saying or anything on STATE property which the license plates actually are.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:30 pm |
  8. EJ (USA)

    So I guess the answer is "no" – you would not consider marrying me even if you were single Jeffrey? Well its ok – I can take the rejection.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  9. Jo Anne Cummings

    I always found it strange that in Florida we have anti-abortion plates, but no pro-abortion plates. South Carolina has I believe plates but no I don't believe plates....choice you say!!! NOT.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:32 pm |
  10. Mari, Salt Lake City

    FREEDOM. People have the FREEDOM to do as they like, even if its a state license plate with a Christian symbol.

    I have a license plate that has a Bible verse number on it. There is separation of church and state (well maybe not in UT but that's another story).

    Of course, once states allow Christian symbols, it opens the door to everything........ even, a swastika! Scary.

    July 14, 2008 at 7:59 pm |
  11. Michelle

    Of course we have Muslim schools, as well as Christian Schools and Buddhist schools. The key idea here is that these are private institutions. License plates do not come from private institutions, they come from our States so the separation of church and state needs to apply.

    July 14, 2008 at 7:33 pm |
  12. Jim-

    I think we have a LOT bigger problems like Banks Going Under,Price of Gas Going Up,Stock market going Down, We have people who have lost or are loosing there homes from flood, fire, & the mortgage
    melt down & some moron is bellyaching about whats on a stupid liscense plate?????

    July 14, 2008 at 7:06 pm |
  13. Aaron-Hawesville,KY

    Constitutional!Where's my America.We can have Muslim schools but we can't have a cross on our plate.

    July 14, 2008 at 6:15 pm |
  14. jackie

    As a South Carolinian, I find this idea most offensive. As many others have noted, other religions deserve their own plate if this one is allowed. My biggest problem is it is receiving support from politicians like our lieutenant gov, Andre Bauer, who is willing to front the $4000 for the tags. Bauer is known for his abuse of power, identifying himself as "SC-2" when he breaks the law, while reprimanding police for doing their job. It's politics as usual in a state where our own governor refuses to send his kids to public schools and politicians are suddenly religious in an election year. Why can't they devote their time to an important issue?

    July 14, 2008 at 5:41 pm |
  15. Michael Lane

    I wonder if the folks in South Carolina would have any problem with a plate with a cross with a big X through it and a plate saying "I don't believe"........

    July 14, 2008 at 5:28 pm |
  16. Michael Lane

    Religions icons of any type should not be a part of any city, county, local, federal, state or any form of government in the United States. Leave religion and its icons to the houses of worship. The government should be secular.

    July 14, 2008 at 5:26 pm |
  17. Chris, San Francisco / Zurich

    Wow, Debbie, NJ:
    These kind of sentiments blinded by your very personal perception of history is part of what flabbergasts many of your fellow Americans – and many more peoples from around the world.
    I would easily counter that our ability to keep any specific religion's influence detached from any form of government and government-supported (read: public) education is exactly one of the greatest strengths that has allowed the United States of America to gain prominence in more than just worldly economic forums, but also (and now recently to a lesser extent, due in no small part to religion of every kind playing too large a role in politics) worldly political forums.
    The melting pot of morals and ideals that formed the basis for success for our country and it's laws is undeniably more diffuse today than ever, which of course makes it more difficult to accomodate everyone's belief systems so easily without offense. However I believe that once again and, indeed, continuously going through the difficult process of picking and choosing the most universal and inclusive views for all of our government-related decisions will give us the flexibility to always be locally true representatives of our own communities and globally agile, compassionate, and truly well-respected amongst both our peers and detractors.
    Please, my fellow American citizens, release the chains of any specific religious beliefs from the freedom which truly represents our people: the freedom to rule ourselves as a nation of individuals capable of respecting each other's individuality yet working together for the common good; not as a nation of divisive subgroups squabbling for political attention amongst ourselves. Only then can we continue to progress and retain any form of positive progess and respect amongst our fellow humans the world over.

    July 14, 2008 at 5:07 pm |
  18. Susan

    South Carolina as part of the union called the United States of America ratified the constitution. It states that Congress shall not establish a state religion.

    These license plates being offered by South Carolina are symbols of Christianity.

    According to how I read the constitution, this should be unconstitutional.

    Susan
    Phoenixville,PA

    July 14, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  19. JC- Los Angeles

    After eight deplorable years of a Presidential regime that failed to separate church and state, it's time for religion to be embraced on a personal rather than national level.

    I find it fascinating that years after we invaded the Middle East, our governmental cabinet still does not reflect leaders who have an inherent understanding of the regions religious dynamics.

    First seek to understand, then to be understood; seems like a good starting point if not seven years too late.

    July 14, 2008 at 4:28 pm |
  20. Victor in Saanich, B.C. Canada

    Keep religion out of the politics of the nation!! PERIOD!!
    State license plates should be simply an ID for the vehicle and not a statement of one's personal belief!!
    What is next?? A burning cross and a noose for the KKK/ Aryan types!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 4:07 pm |
  21. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    If there can be vanity plates for the Yankees or Red Sox, why not religion? Shouldn't God get at least as good a forum as Derek Jeter? Besides, if you've ever been to Boston, you know the Red Sox are a religion.

    July 14, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  22. Lilibeth

    I don’t think the offer is unconstitutional, but license plates shouldn’t have religious or political undertones in it, otherwise you’ll end up with controversies like this. Isn’t this why we don’t talk about politics and religion in parties?

    Lilibeth
    Edmonds, Washington

    July 14, 2008 at 3:07 pm |
  23. CB

    I wish people would study their history more before they make blanket, ignorant and false statements. This country WAS NOT founded on "christian beliefs". One of the concerns (one – not all) was a freedom from a government-mandated religion. Study British history more and you will see the big picture. The Preamble does not mention a diety and is generally used to interpret the "spirit" of the constitution. "Under God" was added to the currency and pledge, it did not start there. Our seperation was not a religious war. Please do not rewrite history to justify your religious politics.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:42 pm |
  24. Nadine Buchko (Pittsburgh, PA)

    The Christians can have their license plates (provided other religions are allowed to), but keep your hands OFF my Darwin Fish!

    It has been mutilated and stolen too many times!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  25. Ruby Coria, LA. CA.

    Jeffrey, others are saying NO BIG DEAL.. YES it's a problem in the making.. we claim to have freedom of religion, but we're scare of other religions, & what do scare people do?, attack. People should leave their GOD in their Heart, & out of Politics!, & OFF the Road. But it's good to know who the freaks are on the road..

    July 14, 2008 at 2:05 pm |
  26. Daisy

    The state should not allow ANY religious symbols on government issued license plates. It's patently absurd. It's got nothing to do with freedom of religion. People can have any number of religious bumper stickers, windeow stickers, icons, or Dashboard statues that they want on their car. Why do they want to have something through the government? The state should say no to everybody. It would save a lot of money in future lawsuits by every nut out there who wants THEIR particulard "religion" or "belief" on their license plate.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:04 pm |
  27. Barbara in Culver City, CA

    I don't think states should be selling license plates with any messages other than the official motto of the state. People can get bumper stickers and license plate frames or even personalized plates to make statements.

    Since the state receives money for its license plates, it sure looks to me like SC is endorsing Christianity, as no other religious options seem to be available. It looks like proselytizing to this non-Christian and I don't think it should be allowed.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:53 pm |
  28. Arachnae

    I point out that South Carolina is the target of the 'Christian Exodus', "a Christian secessionist group promoting a mass emigration of fundamentalist Christians to South Carolina with the goal of influencing the governmental process in the state. It has announced intentions to move people to selected cities and counties of South Carolina in stages, with each stage timed to influence a particular election cycle." – from wikipedia.

    I would be interested to know what hand, if any, they have in this.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  29. mark hoffman

    Let the Christians " loudly proclaim their faith on the street corner " just as the Hypocrites did. There is little difference and they are the only ones who will have to suffer the consequences come judgement day. I say go for it.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:14 pm |
  30. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    EJ the plate does not say "Tru Christian", "Christian4ever" or "Christians Rule" it simply says “I Believe” with a cross.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:59 pm |
  31. Dee, New York

    After reading the above posts and rereading the "establishment clause", I guess that I was oversimplistic and I would like to flip flop. I bet that other people would demand an "I don't believe" license plate. I expect that there would be hard feelings unless there were a plate offered for every belief "under the sun". Maybe personal sentiments are best left to bumper stickers.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  32. marcy

    I don’t see how this is any different than say someone wanting a parrot head (mantee) plate, or their favorte football or baseball team, or even their college. I have a college plate, why can’t someone have an I believe plate if they want to ?! I don’t understand when this county got so scared that we stopped allowing people to choose things for themselves. Now if it were mandatory that would be different but this seems like a “specialty” plate that frankly had they just let it go it wouldn’t have gotten near the attention. I’m not all that religious, much to the dismay of my brother, but I don’t have a problem with other people expressing that faith. As a matter of fact it makes me happy that people can still have that faith. It’s not a threat people it’s a plate on the back of someone’s car that you really only have to look at for a few minutes, and if you don’t like it LOOK AT SOMETHING ELSE!

    Marcy
    Mobile, AL

    July 14, 2008 at 12:42 pm |
  33. Kayle, CT

    Ok on my religious beliefs, you couldn’t pay me to put that on my car, but there really isn’t anything illegal or even offensive about it. Now if it became the states official license plate for ex. the orange on the Florida plates, then it could violate several laws. But if it’s optional you have the constitutional right to state your religion.

    How about to make it even they have a license plate for every religion. Jews could have the Star of David, Atheist could have one that says “I Don’t Believe”, Buddhist could have one with Buddha, and so on and so forth. If it’s really that important I don’t see why not.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:35 pm |
  34. Taylor Hirth

    Okay, I understand the matter of free speech. And that part is fine, but I can see the snowball effect already beginning with this one, which I'm sure is causing the big uproar.

    Everybody's going to ask, "What about my religion?" And in some respects, they'd be right. What ABOUT their religion? If the state is going to provide Christian options for license plates, then what about Jewish license plates? Athiest license plates? FLDS license plates? In all honesty, I don't care about the matter, personally, but I'm sure it's going to bother somebody. I haven't decided on my religion yet, and I know I don't appreciate other people advertising theirs like they're participating some self-rightous piety contest. That doesn't mean I'm going to prevent them from doing so, but if the government is going to provide one religion options, the people are going to want every religion to be provided with options. And why shouldn't they?

    In my humble opinion, there is just some territory that the state and government should avoid treading on.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:02 pm |
  35. EJ (USA)

    Well said Jen, Sophia, & Arachnae.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:53 am |
  36. EJ (USA)

    As long as non Christians do not have to choose this plate, I don’t see where this is any different than having a fish emblem on your car or a bumper sticker with a Christian message.

    The bumper stickers and other such things are not government sponsored. People can put all sorts of crazy & controversial stickers all over their cars.

    That said, offering this option may backfire on those who want to use the plate as a way to proclaim their faith. Once you open the door, then the state would be obligated to, if asked, offer a plate with a positive message about other religions.

    Exactly.

    Would GA object to: "Tru Atheist," "Muslim 4ever," "Jews Rule" ?

    I think many citizens probably would object. If the state govt. didn't allow those but appeared to be allowing Christian plates, then that becomes a huge issue...

    EJ

    July 14, 2008 at 11:50 am |
  37. Kim in NY

    As long as it is not forced upon people, where is the problem? I would like to see, in a year or two the accident and survival rate of these cars compared to the non-Christian plates. I wonder if they will "help."

    July 14, 2008 at 11:40 am |
  38. Arachnae

    To everyone who says 'what's the big deal?', a question. Would you be similarly blase if other religious symbols were allowed? Star of David? Crescent and Star? Pentacle?

    If you are only cool with Christian iconography, you are being discriminatory. Of course, I realize many people are cool with that.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:28 am |
  39. Sophia

    Ah, yes, Freedom of Speech. I ask this then: if there was an Agnostic, Buddhist, or even perhaps Wiccan option -what would the public outcry be then? Many supporters of religious beliefs want the the opportunity to promote their religion -but not that of others..... Is there a Pro-Choice license plate option out there anypace? Christianity seems to be pushing their ideals on quite a few government-tied projects....

    I am American, I pay taxes, and I vote -and I have quite a few objections to many of the conservative notions being pushed in our schools and in our government -they do not represent me or my beliefs.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:11 am |
  40. Jen

    "You can have anything that you want on your plate why bother someone else about theirs?"

    Because I *can't* have anything I want on my plate. South Carolina is allowing this plate to have both the symbol and the statement "I believe." When they were questioned about other faiths, they said they could have any non-offensive symbol. But they wouldn't be able to put a statement under the numbers/letters.

    So Christians have the choice to have the cross and "I believe", but a Buddhist cannot have an image of Buddha and "peace". A Muslim cannot have a star/crescent and some relevant saying. A Jew cannot have a symbol and a statement.

    In other words, Christians have a *better* choice than the options open to any other faith. THAT is the problem.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:53 am |
  41. Teresa, OH

    Hey, if we are gonna allow for wildlife, universities, etc, I see nothing wrong with the christian theme. If we can buy the plate with a cross, then we can all take down our crosses attached to our rearview mirrors to protect us. But, it does seem odd that the "choose life" tag will have a portion of $ going to a PRIVATE agency. Seems like a conflict of interests...

    Wherever did this idea come from? To put little icons on plates? Oh, yes, the states figured out a way to make MORE MONEY by personalizing the plates... Now they've got themselves in a constitutional bind. How much will the cross plates cost? Will the price be the same as the wildlife? They look very detailed: )

    Yes, we all believe in something. I BELIEVE I will go have a little debbie brownie frosted with some peanut butter.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:44 am |
  42. Dee, New York

    Isn't that what our first amendment is all about?

    July 14, 2008 at 10:44 am |
  43. Charlotte D

    Jeffrey,

    I think the key here is "option." As long as non Christians do not have to choose this plate, I don't see where this is any different than having a fish emblem on your car or a bumper sticker with a Christian message. That said, offering this option may backfire on those who want to use the plate as a way to proclaim their faith. Once you open the door, then the state would be obligated to, if asked, offer a plate with a positive message about other religions.

    As we continue this one-sided dialogue, is part of your concern re the constitutionality of the state collecting for and steering money to benefit a specific religion? Where would the money generated by the plates go? I am thinking groups benefiting from funding would need to be ecumentical and not only serve across denominational lines but all citizens regardless of race, creed or gender.

    Charlotte D
    Stockton CA

    July 14, 2008 at 10:40 am |
  44. Annie Kate

    Jeffrey,

    If I were forced to buy one of the plates I would say it was unconstitutional but since its just a choice that people can make of their own free will, then I'm not going to get upset that people have that choice. Whether its constitutional or not I don't know – you would think that the state would have explored that question before they offered the plate – but perhaps not.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 14, 2008 at 10:32 am |
  45. Debbie, NJ

    Why is everything a person's freedom except being able to express your faith. This country was founded on religious freedom but it is the one thing that has been deemed unconstitutional in the schools, court houses, and now even on our money. Our children have to learn about every other "god" in mythology in school except the real, true and living God. This country was known as the most prosperous and powerful country in the world for one reason. Our expression of believe in God. Now that we want to leave God and our faith out of everything, this country is going down.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:21 am |
  46. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    I don't see what the problem is. This is not mandatory it’s an option people have. If you don't want one then don't get it. I personally think it’s just plain tacky so I would opt out even though I do believe.

    But do people forget that this country was founded on Christian beliefs. Yes there was a separation of church and state but you can not deny that the people who founded this country did believe in God.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:19 am |
  47. Cindy

    OK...why do we always have to be so PC!? There is nothing at all wrong with this license plate. If you don't like it then don't look. You can have anything that you want on your plate why bother someone else about theirs?

    In Georgia you can get whatever saying you want on your plate as long as it isn't already taken. No one here grips or protests. If we don't like it we look the other way. There are WAY too many more important things to worry about than what's on someones car tag.

    Some people need to get a life!

    Cindy...Ga.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:08 am |