A federal judge has ruled that South Carolina vanity license plates inscribed with a cross and the words I believe violate the First Amendment's requirement of separation of church and state.
In a 57-page ruling, Judge Cameron Currie of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina said that the I Believe Act, under which the plates were created, is clearly unconstitutional, since it promote[s] a specific religion, Christianity. The Act, passed in 2008 after a similar law was struck down in Florida, made no attempt to create license plates centered around other religions.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who was the driving force behind the law, dismissed the ruling as that of an activist judge bent on destroying Christianity. In a statement, Bauer called Currie a liberal judge appointed by Bill Clinton who is using her personal wishes to overrule the Legislature and the will of the thousands of South Carolinians who want to purchase the tags, and said her ruling was nothing less than another attack on Christianity.
Bauer said he has asked South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster to appeal the ruling. McMaster is reportedly considering his options. Bauer and McMaster are both running to replace disgraced Gov. Mark Sanford. Indeed, in her ruling, Judge Currie questioned whether Bauer was motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin.
Whether or not McMaster appeals the ruling, the issue is far from resolved. Immediately after the ruling, the Palmetto Family Council, a private group, announced its Plan B to resurrect the plate with private dollars. Under South Carolina law, private groups can apply to have specially-created vanity plates issued. Whether such a scheme would pass constitutional muster is unclear. If such a plan involved significant state action for example, if the DMV was the ultimate issuer of the plate the plate could be again invalidated.
While Bauer said he was personally offended at Judge Currie's act of awarding legal fees to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the suit was originally brought on behalf of a Methodist minister, a Christian minister, a rabbi, and a Unitarian pastor. The Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were later joined as parties.
Judge Currie said the suit amounted to a waste of taxpayer money. Her ruling noted that, despite the clear language of Supreme Court First Amendment cases, this state's limited resources have been used to promote, pass, and defend a state law [which] amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular. She issued a permanent injunction barring the defendants from issuing or manufacturing the plates, and from taking applications or money for future orders.