COLUMBIA -- A federal judge Thursday ordered South Carolina to freeze plans to produce a special "I Believe" license plate, refund motorists who have prepaid for the plates and direct them to make a different selection.
The plates, designed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, bearing a gold cross and a stained-glass window with the words "I Believe" across the bottom, amount to state-sponsored religious preference, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie ruled in Columbia.
"The court directs (the state) to take all actions necessary to preserve the status quo," Currie ordered, pending further legal action.
The injunction, sought by four religious leaders, including Christians and Jews, and two religious groups, including Hindus and Arabs, is temporary and might be appealed.
But Currie said the case would have a strong chance of success in court in showing that the public's First Amendment rights barring Congress and state governments from establishing a religion were violated by the plates.
Currie also said the plates, approved by the S.C. House and Senate and signed into law by the governor:
• Did not have a secular purpose;
• Failed the test of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion; and
• Failed to prevent excessive government entanglement with religion.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster disputed Currie's finding and urged the state to appeal.
"I am extremely disappointed in the court's ruling, and feel the 'I Believe' license tag is completely constitutional," McMaster said in a released statement. "I will strongly urge and recommend that the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Corrections immediately appeal this decision to the Fourth Circuit (U.S. Court) of Appeals."
The injunction named as defendants DMV director Marcia Adams and state prisons director Jon Ozmint, whose department would make the plates.
Kevin Hall, of the Nelson Mullins law firm in Columbia, who represented Adams and pleaded against the injunction, said he would evaluate the state's next step.
Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United in Washington, D.C., who argued for the injunction, said the state should let the case go, if the point is to protect S.C. taxpayers.
"The 'I Believe' license plate sends the message that South Carolina has a favored religion," Kahn said. "That's one message the state is not permitted to transmit."
Currie ordered the DMV to stop advertising the "I Believe" plates on its Web site or at DMV branch offices.
"The 'I Believe' license plate is a clear example of government favoritism toward one religion," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the court challenge to the plates.
This is the second time in two years the state has had to defend a specialty license plate in federal court.
In 2006, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, considered the most conservative in the nation, struck down a General Assembly-approved law allowing a special "Choose Life" license tag, ruling it was unconstitutional because it favored a certain political view over another.
The state wound up being able to issue the tags this year under a law allowing nonprofits to apply directly to the DMV for revenue-producing specialty license plates.
The DMV offers dozens of specialty plates, including one from the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry that features an American flag with the inscription "In Reason We Trust."
Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the "I Believe" tag to add it to the mix. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer displays the "I Believe" tag on his official Web site and touts the plates because he said they reflect South Carolina's values.
At least 400 motorists must pre-order such special license plates or the DMV must collect $4,000 in order for the plates to be produced.
The plates were to sell for $29 each, with $5 going to cover the cost of their production.
'I Believe:' a history
About the license plate a federal judge has blocked from production and distribution:
April 24 -- Sens. Yancey McGill, R-Williamsburg, and Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, file a bill in the Senate establishing the license plate.
April 30 -- Senate passes bill.
May 22 -- House passes bill.
June 5 -- Bill becomes law without Gov. Mark Sanford's signature.
June 19 -- Lawsuit is filed in federal court challenging the license plates as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Dec. 11 -- A federal judge, citing the strength of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the license plates, blocks the production and distribution of the "I Believe" plates.