Wednesday, November 11, 2009

South Carolina "I Believe" Plates Ruled Unconstitutional

In Summers v. Adams, (D SC, Nov. 10, 2009), a South Carolina federal district court held that the statute authorizing South Carolina's "I Believe" license plates-- carrying the image of a cross superimposed on a stained glass window-- violates the Establishment Clause. The court summarized its conclusions as follows:
the "I Believe" Act cannot be seen by any reasonable observer either as facilitating expression of a broad diversity of viewpoints ... or as a permissible accommodation to Christians..... Both positions are belied by the facts that the "I Believe" Act (1) authorizes a single plate with a uniquely Christian message, (2) was sponsored and approved solely as the result of governmental action, and (3) presents its message in a manner that is not available except through the legislative approval process (necessary to allow the inclusion of both motto and symbol). ....

The "I Believe" Act had its genesis in Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer’s desire to do here what had been unsuccessful in the state of Florida–to gain legislative approval of a specialty plate promoting the majority religion: Christianity. Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same. The statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation.
While granting a declaratory judgment and awarding attorneys' fees, the court rejected plaintiffs' claim for nominal damages, finding that qualified immunity protects the secretary of state's actions in planning for distribution of the plates. The court had previously issued a preliminary injunction against further advertising, distribution or production of the plates. (See prior posting.) A press release from Americans United, which had filed the case, said that the court's decision put a stop to officials who "want to use religion as a political football." ABP reported on the decision.