Opinion

'I Believe' license plates

The dispute over the "I Believe" specialty license plates is not the first time the state has encountered such a legal predicament. And, considering the results the last time, we wonder why the state decided to venture down that road again.

The plates, designed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, bear a gold cross, a stained-glass window and the phrase "I Believe" across the bottom. Last week, a federal judge ordered South Carolina to freeze plans to produce the plate, refund motorists who have prepaid for the plates and tell them to make another choice.

U.S. Judge Cameron Currie said that a lawsuit brought by four religious groups, including Christians, Jews and Hindus, stood a strong chance of succeeding. The license plate, said Currie, has no secular purpose, fails the test of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion, and fails to prevent excessive government entanglement with religion.

The ruling should come as no surprise. 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 law approved by the General Assembly that allowed a special "Choose Life" license plate.

In that case, the court found that the tag was unconstitutional because it favored one political view over another. Compounding the problem was the fact that some proceeds from the sale of the license plate were to be funneled to crisis pregnancy centers.

In the end, taxpayers had to foot the bill not only for the state's legal fees but also those of Planned Parenthood, which had lodged the lawsuit.

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster wants the state to appeal the injunction against the "I Believe" plates, saying it is a matter of principle. But it also is a matter of practicality: As in 2006, the case would go straight to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the outcome is predictable.

State lawmakers had hoped to avoid questions of constitutionality this time around by taking a different approach to creating the plate. 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."

Supporters of the "I Believe" plate argue that it simply represents one more interest group. As with other specialty plates, at least 400 motorists had to pre-order the "I Believe" plates or the DMV had to collect $4,000 in advance. Cost of the plate was to be $29, with $5 going to cover the cost of production.

With these requirements, we think, the state drew a finer legal line than it did with the "Choose Life" plates. It could be argued that Christian believers are just one more constituency among many with their own license plate.

But a run-in with the First Amendment is hard to avoid when the state is producing and promoting a license plate that caters to and advances a particular religion. It is easy to understand why Judge Currie found that this entangled the state with religion.

Let people plaster their cars with all the religious -- or anti-religious -- stickers and emblems they want. But leave the proselytizing to private parties.

Don't waste the taxpayers' money appealing this case.

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