Things got ugly last night in Greer, S.C.
More than 400 people gathered at People's Baptist Church to protest a federal district court's decision to stop the production of a "Christian" license plate that would have featured a cross superimposed on a stained glass window with the words "I Believe." The DMV will decide by the end of the week whether they will appeal the district court's decision.
Americans United filed a lawsuit challenging the plates on behalf of four South Carolina clergy -- the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones -- as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Attendees at the rally signed petitions and listened to speeches from a wide array of "I Believe" supporters, including Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Attorney General Henry McMaster and the rally's organizer, the Rev. Arnold Hiette, who unfortunately made our plaintiffs the targets of his hateful sermon.
According to a report by Spartanburg's Herald-Journal, "Red-faced and angry, shaking his fist alongside his Bible, Hiette told the congregation that the four complainants -- especially the Unitarian -- and one judge who took away the people's right to witness via their vehicle tags 'along with the ACLU, they're going to burn in hell.'"
It's sad that it has come to this. All that our plaintiffs want is to uphold the Constitution and ensure that religious minorities don't feel like second-class citizens in South Carolina. The Constitution does not allow the government to favor religion over non-religion, or prefer one religious belief over others. It is as simple as that.
But Bauer and McMaster deliberately misled the public on the facts of this case -- turning this into some sort of war against religion, specifically Christianity, when it clearly is not.
"There is free speech for every group in this state besides Christians," Bauer said last night. "Every citizen has the right to free speech in this country. I don't understand why witnessing in public is considered unconstitutional. You don't even have to be a Christian to believe everyone deserves the freedom of speech.
"When a secular group can get a license plate without anyone challenging them," he continued, "but we as Christians can't.... Enough is enough."
"Enough" is right. This is just propaganda. Bauer and McMaster know what the Constitution says, and they know this is not a matter of suppressing the free speech of Christians. This is about government favoring one religion, and that is exactly what the First Amendment prohibits.
This license plate was passed (unanimously) by the legislature. No other faith group was given the same opportunity, and it's quite certain that none will be. In fact, Bauer even said he would not support a Muslim plate, and State Sen. Yance McGill, who supported this "Christian" plate, indicated that he would not support a Wiccan tag.
"That's not what I consider to be a religion," McGill told the Associated Press back in May.
Yet those at the rally claim our plaintiffs are taking away free speech rights of Christians. What about all the non-Christians who have no chance for a similar plate because the legislature doesn't even consider their faith to be a religion? Did Bauer and McMaster forget that free speech isn't just for the majority?
Fortunately, our plaintiffs are not intimidated by criticism. As Rev. Summers put it in an op-ed this week for the Religion News Service, when questioned by critics, he responds, "How could a Christian minister not be against governmentally sponsored license plate?
"When lawmakers chose to single out one religious group on a state-sanctioned license plate to the exclusion of all others, it shows an unfair and unconstitutional preference," he continued. "What's more, this action trampled on a core value resting at the heart of Christianity: equality."
Concluded Summers, "If people want to proclaim their faith on their cars, there are a number of bumper stickers and emblems that can do the job. Just don't expect the government of South Carolina -- or any government, for that matter -- to help you spread the message. It's not the government's job, and none of us should want it to be."
That's a far better sermon than Rev. Hiette's diatribe. I hope he, Bauer and McMaster are paying attention.