July 16th, 2008
11:49 AM ET

One state backs one religion. Guess which one.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/14/art.sc.plate.jpg width=292 height=149]
Gary Tuchman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

License plates used to be boring. Back in the olden days - in 1960’s Illinois in my case - every driver’s plate was white, and every plate exclaimed “The Land of Lincoln” on the bottom of it. And that was it. It was all pretty darn basic.

But times have changed. There are now so many vanity plates in this country that it’s hard to keep track of the types and the causes. Colleges, organizations, environmental causes, sports teams; there is an incredible variety.

There are also some controversial ones; including a “Choose Life” plate, which is an implicit denouncement of abortion. But there has never been a plate which endorsed a specific religion. Until now. Maybe.

South Carolina license plates used to be boring, but the state has now approved a new plate featuring a Christian cross, stained glass window, and the words "I believe." And a federal suit has been filed, saying it violates the Constitution's separation of church and state.

The backstory is fascinating.

Florida was the first to try approving a plate with a cross and the words “I believe.” But concerns over separation of church and state led to the legislature to reject the concept. Many South Carolina legislators were not amused by Florida backing down, and started talking about doing their own.

Normally, the way vanity plates get approved in the Palmetto State is an organization comes forward, pays 4 thousand dollars, and then usually the plate gets printed. Well, in South Carolina it was the legislators who came forward. Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer announced he would pay the 4 thousand dollars out of his own pocket - although he expects to get reimbursed by proceeds from sales of the plate. Representatives and senators approved the plan unanimously. Not one negative vote.

Many politicians in South Carolina say the issue isn't separation of church and state, but rather a freedom of speech issue. Why shouldn’t a committed Christian be allowed to get such a plate?

On the other hand, one might wonder, what about other religions having their own plates?

The lieutenant governor told me he has no problems with that. He says if Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or even Wiccans want their own plates, he would support their efforts. Nevertheless, there was no effort by legislators to approve any other specific religion’s plate; just the Christian plate.

Bauer also acknowledged he has no intention of loaning someone from another religious group 4 thousand dollars. He says he is willing to loan his money for the Christian plate not as the second highest office holder in the state, but as a devoted Christian, and he strongly believes there is nothing inappropriate about that.

But then there's that lawsuit. It was filed to stop the production of the plate, scheduled to start soon.

A Methodist minister in South Carolina who is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, says the plate is inappropriate. Rev. Thomas Summers says although the state is predominantly Christian, it offends him because the action by the legislature “promotes inequality.” He says it’s beyond him how any Christian minister “would not take offense at this elevation of Christianity over our brothers and sisters in other faith groups.”

Bauer disagrees, of course, and says he believes a major reason people would oppose this plate is discrimination against Christians. “I’m tired of seeing Christians back down in fear of a lawsuit,” he exclaimed. And then, with a smile on his face, he said if he were lieutenant governor of Florida, perhaps the plate would have passed its legislature, too.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Gary Tuchman • Religion • T1
soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Eric

    I think people are hypocrites. The word Freedom means actually Free to do what you want. I wonder what makes people so irritated when they see the cross or at the mention of Jesus. Is it coz they know the truth and still negate it? When something catastrophic happens people rush to church then they forget after sometime. I say that the name Jesus should even be placed on the car's roof tops. If you they've got a problem try putting 'Devil' on the plates.,then will see which ones will have more accidents than the others.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:39 am |
  2. Logan, Indiana

    Speaking as a complete atheist, go North Carolina! The state is endorsing no religion! The guy is just displaying his faith! What is wrong with that?

    July 17, 2008 at 1:28 am |
  3. Drew

    One more thing... I declare SHENANIGANS on people who say Christianity is the most persecuted religion in America. You're the majority... you can't have it both ways. And its not a Liberal/Democrat thing either, its a free thinker thing. I know plenty of Christians who wouldn't hesitate to remove that plate from a family member or friend's car. I can't wrap my brain around the notion of it being a free speech thing. If I was to say "Hail Satan" around a group of Christians, I'd be ostracized, and possibly have my butt handed to me, served with a piping hot knuckle sandwich.

    July 17, 2008 at 12:52 am |
  4. Drew

    In Louisiana, where I live, they have Pro Life license plates, save the black bears plates, and a few others... personally I don't mind those, but this irks the living crap out of me.. especially since its funded by the lieutenant governor of S.C. that's just plain wrong. whatever happened to the separation of church and state? I'm not gonna lie, the Pro Life plates bug me too... especially since they haven't printed any Pro Choice plates, ever. I honestly don't care if you're a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Athiest, or you believe in a flying spaghetti monster... its your personal belief, keep it to yourself. I agree with Carol, i don't give two farts from a sea lion if your kid's an honor roll student, my little sister (who's15, btw) could beat them up. I don't want to know if your kid is in the marines, or if your two little elementary school girls are soccer players, cheerleaders, or clean the toilets after school. Personally, I think license plates are supposed to be plain, and bumper stickers should only be clever sayings (being a New Orleanian... I like "F.E.M.A – Fix Everything, My Ass" or "New Orleans... Proud to swim home.") Wait, what? I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you with all the flags flapping in my ears, and the proselytizing Christians bleating during the silence. I guess... because I like to form my own opinions, come to my own conclusions, and I don't want to listen to how much someone thinks Jesus loves me.. these fundamentalists must think I'm a bad American.. A friend once told me that the reason the Titanic sank was because Protestants built it, and George Carlin put it best... what's more plausible – life on other planets, or an all seeing all knowing Creator figure. Now, I hate to do this, because I've been ranting about this, but I was raised Roman Catholic.. the one TRUE Church, so don't think I'm an Atheist, Jesus-basher... I just don't think what you believe should be spewing from your mouth or mounted firmly on your car.... its a personal belief, keep it that way.

    diatribe much?

    July 17, 2008 at 12:42 am |
  5. David

    This issue is NOT about faith, it is about the First Amendment. If this flies, the 1st amendment is as dead as the Christian right wants it to be. The reason why Christians feel persecuted is because you are the only ones cramming your religion in everyone's face, including now to the license plate. This is a vanity plate initiated by the and financially supported by the governor's office, which is different from ALL other vanity plates that arise by petition from the people and then have to get approval by the legislature. There is nothing more important than this kind of issue because it involves whether our Constitution still serves to protect us from the tyranny of the Government's religious belief. But who are we kidding--this county is dead. Americans are so stupid these days that they can't even borrow money responsibly. Gheeez. France, here I come.

    July 16, 2008 at 11:48 pm |
  6. Jim-

    Chose not to post my earlier comments eh? The Gays can promote themselves but I cannot promote my beliefs? Better go back & Check early Supreme Court Rulings & Read U.S. History from text books 100 years old.

    July 16, 2008 at 11:32 pm |
  7. Adrian

    Christians should be free to display their faiths. All other religions get a chance to do it in this nation. In some school, or so I've read, Muslim children are allowed to pray during school hours, as so to keep up with the 5 times a day standard of their faith, but the 10 Commandments can't hang in public? What a shame. If you don't believe in the Christian God, then the problem is all yours to yourself. This country was founded on Christian values, by Christian men (albeit a tad bit shortsided, to say the least). Freedom of religion means that Christians can openly show their faith. Why? Because true Christian ideals do NOT incite hate against others. Wicca is not a religion, it's a habit. Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Southern Asian religions did not have input in framing this nation, and therefore should count it an honor that they are allowed to practice their belief ANYWHERE at all. I don't hate, but this is AMERICA. We have let so-called freedom go to our heads, and we have lost sight of what is right. Christians started it so if things lean in our favor, it's because we laid the groundwork. We speak English in this nation, and anyone who wants to live and work here should at least be able to read it and carry a basic conversation. Period.

    July 16, 2008 at 11:32 pm |
  8. Anne

    The LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR of the State of South Carolina put up the $4,000. That's pretty much an endorsement in my view.

    July 16, 2008 at 11:26 pm |
  9. Somecthemes

    As a possible solution to the issue at heart; can an officer of the people promote his own beliefs without equal participation by those people, couldn't the producer of these plates just accept from any vehicle owner suitible form of image, whose display itself isn't at issue, and via the state assign a set cost for the break in production. This removes the doubt of self entitlement, and would give any with sufficient funds a free choice of cost vs. vanity.
    Oh, pat the poor gov' on the head and give him back his dollars.

    July 16, 2008 at 10:48 pm |
  10. Tim Hendon

    Is there really a separation of church and state? Oh yea! I forgot that the church doesn't pay taxes. That seems to be the only separation that I can see. Let's resolve the issue by taxing the church and then let's see how involved or uninvolved it becomes in the politcs if the church has to pay up for speaking out!

    Hammond, LA

    July 16, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  11. Jo Anne Cummings

    Again I ask, why are there so many pro this and choose that plates, but never any anti or opposition plates? obviously no equal billing for anything that does not agree with the moral majority. I agree with Ken. (not Ken C.)

    July 16, 2008 at 10:29 pm |
  12. Tiara, Columbia, SC

    As a believer I don't see the problem. If you don't believe it's quite simple; DON'T GET THE PLATE! Seriously, I think people make things far too complicated sometimes.

    July 16, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  13. Alex, Ca

    The representatives and the senators of S.C did a very noble thing. I think that there is nothing wrong with the license plate. People who oppose it just doesn't want to hear anything associated to Jesus Christ, or God in general. I praise the Lt.Governor for defending his faith. Christians have the right to express themselves just like everyone else who believes in a certain religion.

    July 16, 2008 at 9:41 pm |
  14. Greg S. in Chicago

    Another reason to never move to a red state, and boycott them as vacation spots. The people who need to proclaim their Christianity to the world are usually the ones with the most hateful and exclusionary behaviors. The good Christians just prove they're good by doing good.

    I guess we could look at the bright side. The plates will warn us which people are closed-minded morons.

    July 16, 2008 at 9:30 pm |
  15. Kim, WI

    The only problem I have is messing up the line between church and state.

    July 16, 2008 at 9:20 pm |
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