Judge strikes down plate

Words on Christian cross ruled unconstitutional by federal jurist who says it promotes one religion over another

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 11, 2009 

A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional a Christian "I Believe" vehicle license tag with the image of a cross authorized last year by the S.C. General Assembly.

"The 'I Believe' Act's primary effect is to promote a specific religion, Christianity," U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie wrote in a decision released Tuesday.

State laws promoting one religion over others have been illegal in the United States since the nation's founding, Currie wrote.

Currie also focused on the role played by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who originally pushed for the Christian tag after a move to create a similar "I Believe" tag failed in Florida.

"Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular," Currie wrote.

"Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same," she wrote. "The statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation."

The tag in question would have featured a large cross against a stained glass window and the words: "I Believe." No tags had been issued. A state Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman said the department will abide by the judge's decision.

In her 57-page ruling, Currie ordered the state of South Carolina to pay legal costs of the people who filed the lawsuit.

Those costs could not be immediately determined.

Bauer, whose idea it was to pass the law and who worked with Joe Mack, a prominent Baptist to get it introduced, attacked Currie on Tuesday, calling her a "liberal judge appointed by (President) Bill Clinton."

Bauer said the ruling represented "another attack on Christianity" and 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."

But a top state Democrat said Bauer's statements are "political demagoguery" aimed at appealing to religious conservatives who form a key voting bloc in Republican primaries. Bauer is running for governor in next year's June GOP primary.

"The irony of Bauer's demagoguery is that no judge in South Carolina has sent more criminals to prison and is more conservative on many issues than Judge Currie," said Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia defense attorney and former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Bauer was not a party to the lawsuit.

In an interview, Bauer disputed the notion that advocating for the "I Believe" tag was political. Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate voted unanimously for the bill, he said.

And he has worked with a rival for the GOP gubernatorial nod, Attorney General Henry McMaster, to promote the law.

"The fact that I'm consulting with one of the guys that's running against me should show you it's not political at all," Bauer said. "Both of us think it's time for Christians to stand up for what they believe."

The Rev. Neal Jones, one of the plaintiffs who filed suit against the state seeking to stop the tag, said the ruling didn't surprise him because the tag was "blatantly" unconstitutional.

Jones said Bauer's attempt to promote one religion was part of a long tradition of state officials spending taxpayers' money on lawsuits that try to do unconstitutional things like upholding racial segregation and keeping women out of the now-coed Citadel.

"It's really sad," said Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia. "I don't know how much taxpayers' money has been spent on this case at a time when our state is seeing deficits and making budget cuts."

Currie also said defending the lawsuit was a waste of money.

"Despite such clearly established law, this state's limited resources have been used to promote, pass and defend a state law, the 'I Believe' Act," she wrote.

"The Act, passed in 2008, authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a license plate which must contain the words 'I Believe' and a cross superimposed on a stained glass window," she wrote.

Currie expressly noted that the state law made no provision for allowing other religions to put their symbols on license plates.

Thomas Crocker, assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina Law School, said Currie made the right decision in an "absolutely clear-cut" case.

Her decision is "not out to denigrate religion, but it's out of a historical understanding that problems for both politics and religion can flow from the state's entanglement with religious practice," said Crocker, who teaches constitutional law.

Her ruling thus protects "both religion and the state," Crocker said.

Mark Plowden, a spokesman for McMaster said, "The attorney general is utterly disappointed with the ruling of the court and disagrees with it."

Plowden said McMaster will study the ruling before deciding whether an appeal would be productive.

The Insurance Reserve Fund, a state agency that pays for defending other state agencies in lawsuits, has paid much of the case's legal fees, said Mike Sponhour, an agency spokesman. But the Fund won't disclose the legal fees until the case is finalized, he said.

Late Tuesday, a spokesman for a faith-based group, the Palmetto Family Council, said his group has made plans to seek permission from the Department of Motor Vehicles to get the group its own plate with the words, "I Believe" on it.

Such a plate, though religious, might have a better chance of being constitutional than the just-overturned law. State law allows private groups to apply for tags with a message. More than 100 groups already have their own messages.

"The whole problem with the law Judge Currie ruled on was that the Legislature passed it, and the state then produced the license plate. The plate was therefore an expression of the state - not a private organization," said Aaron Kozloski, one of the winning attorneys. He is local counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Bauer also attacked Currie for awarding fees to the victorious lawyers.

But Kozloski said judges often order the loser to pay legal fees of the winner.

"That's standard procedure," Kozloski said. He said the winning attorneys would have to compute the fees.

Bauer said Currie's ruling discriminates against Christians.

"When you can express yourself as a non-Christian, and not as a Christian, there's a real disconnect," Bauer said. "The laws of our country are being abused."

The lawsuit was brought by Neal; the Rev. Thomas Summers, a retired Methodist minister from Columbia; Sanford Marcus, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia; and the Rev. Robert M. Knight, pastor of First Christian Church in Charleston. Joining them in the suit were the nonprofit Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The 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.

Neither Adams nor Ozmint had any comment.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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