Federal judge rules Christian-themed license plates unconstitutional

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of South Carolina [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that license plates produced by the state bearing a picture of a cross in front of a stained glass window and the words "I Believe" violate the US Constitution. Judge Cameron Currie ruled that the "I Believe Act" [SC Code § 56-3-10510], which allows the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to issue the plates "violates the Establishment Clause of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by advancing, endorsing, and promoting religion." Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) [advocacy website] attorney Ayesha Khan, who represented the plaintiffs, stated [press release] that the government cannot advocate one religion over another and she was "delighted that the judge has reminded South Carolina officials of that fact." South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer [official website] said the state will likely appeal the decision. Meanwhile, the Palmetto Family Council [advocacy website] changed its name to "I Believe," taking advantage of a law that allows private organizations to place their name and design on license plates to be issued to its members. It is not clear whether this action would withstand a legal challenge, although a South Carolina-based secular humanist organization, Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry [advocacy website], currently issues South Carolina license plates reading "In Reason We Trust."

Several states have recently been challenged for issuing license plates displaying religious or political messages. In 2008, a federal appeals court ruled [JURIST report] that Arizona's refusal to issue license plates saying "Choose Life" to an anti-abortion group violated the group's First Amendment free speech rights. Also in 2008, a federal circuit court judge issued a similar ruling [JURIST report], overturning a Missouri law as unconstitutionally vague. In 2006, a federal appeals court rejected [JURIST report] a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] to a Tennessee statute providing for license plates with a pro-life message but not creating a pro-choice license plate. In 2004, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that a South Carolina law providing for license plates with an anti-abortion message violated the Constitution.

 

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