Today a federal judge in Columbia, S.C., will hear arguments about the South Carolina state legislature's decision to issue a special "Christian" license plate. The plate, which features the words "I Believe" and a yellow cross superimposed on a stained-glass church window, clearly constitutes unconstitutional government favoritism toward one faith and should not be issued, according to a lawsuit sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The plaintiffs in Summers v. Adams come from a wide range of religious beliefs. The Hindu-American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are part of the lawsuit. So are four local clergy from the Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian and Jewish traditions.
Religious Right forces often try to depict support for church-state separation as some sort of atheist conspiracy intended to drive religion from the public square. That's nonsense, of course. These plaintiffs have gone to court not because they oppose religion, but because they want a government that obeys the Constitution and refrains from favoring one faith over others (or religion over irreligion).
In an essay in the Columbia Free Times yesterday, three of the plaintiffs offered some of their reasons for opposing the sectarian license plate.
"Much is at risk when the government involves itself in religion," wrote the Rev. Dr. Thomas Summers, Rabbi Sanford Marcus and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones. "As leaders of different faith groups, we are especially sensitive to this threat. And though each of us possesses different religious beliefs, what we have in common is a commitment to church-state separation and respect for diversity within our community. We have dedicated ourselves to the cause of keeping peace among differing faith groups, both in our home state of South Carolina and around the world.
"That's why South Carolina's "I Believe" license plate feels like a slap in the face," they continued. "After striving to preserve religious harmony, we see the South Carolina General Assembly undercutting that work by approving a license plate that makes non-Christians feel threatened and unwanted in our communities."
Summers, Marcus and Jones noted that some legislators publicly stated that they would not issue special license plates for minority religious faiths.
"The 'I Believe' plate is a clear violation of our vitally important separation of religion and government," the three insisted. "We need that essential constitutional principle to preserve the right of all citizens to believe in whichever faith they choose or no faith at all. That's what this country has always been about.
"Our state should not bully members of South Carolina's minority groups," the clergy concluded. "Christianity, broadly speaking, represents the majority of the American faithful. That, however, does not mean the rights of minorities can be disregarded. Government must protect the rights of those with different ideas and beliefs, not make them feel inferior."
Those sentiments are a great affirmation of the American tradition of religious liberty for all. I hope the federal court rules against the "Christian" license plates today, and I hope state legislators see this Free Times essay and reflect on the mistake they made.