Summers v. Adams

Last modified 2011.09.15

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. District Court
  • Issues Fighting Discrimination, Racial Equality, Religious Displays, Religious Minorities, Why People of Faith Support Church-State Separation

In June 2008, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford allowed to take effect, without his signature, legislation creating a Christian-themed state license plate. The license plate featured a large cross superimposed on a stained-glass window and the words “I Believe.”  State officials initiated the legislation and chose the plate’s message and design. And Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer announced that he would be willing to advance $4,000 of his own money, to be ultimately reimbursed by the state, so that the plate could be produced without delay.

While religious organizations may apply to the DMV for approval of specialty plates, DMV-approved plates may display only the name of the sponsoring organization and the organization’s official logo; expressive words or phrases, such as “I Believe,” are prohibited. Personalized vanity plates, also obtained through the DMV, may contain only seven characters (including spaces) that are limited to numbers, letters, and ampersands; symbols or emblems are not permitted.

In June 2008, we filed suit in federal district court on behalf of four individual clergy members and the Hindu American Foundation, challenging the law. The complaint argued that the special preference shown for Christianity in the General Assembly’s approval of the “I Believe” license plate not only improperly advanced and endorsed religion in violation of the Establishment Clause, but also discriminated against citizens of other faiths, in violation of their free speech rights, because it failed to provide a comparable expressive outlet for them. The complaint further charged that, even if a comparable expressive outlet were available to private individuals or organizations, the “I Believe” plate nevertheless bore the impermissible imprimatur of the State because it was the State, not a private entity, that stood behind it.

The lawsuit asked the court to declare the statute unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from producing the plate. We amended our complaint in August 2008, to add the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as a plaintiff. And in November 2008, we filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, seeking to prevent the State from issuing the “I Believe” license plate while the case was proceeding.

In December 2008, the court heard oral argument and subsequently granted our motion. The court not only enjoined the DMV from issuingand the Department of Corrections from manufacturingthe license plate, as we had requested, but also ordered the DMV to remove all images of the plate from its website and field offices.

All parties filed motions for summary judgment in August 2009, and the court issued a ruling in our favor in November 2009. The court held that the statute creating the license plate was unconstitutional, concluding that the statute (1) was motivated by a purpose to endorse religion in general, and Christianity in particular; (2) had the primary effect of advancing religion; and (3) fostered an excessive government entanglement with religion. The court therefore permanently enjoined state officials from producing the license plate. The state decided not to appeal the court’s decision.

We filed a motion to recover attorneys’ fees in January 2010. The State made the required payment, and the case is concluded.

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