Lawsuits, license plates and liberty

By Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia

Ever since I became a therapist, I have dreaded the possibility of getting involved in a lawsuit. I was warned in my grad school psychology courses that the odds were great that at some time in our careers as clinical psychologists, a disgruntled, hostile client would take out his or her frustration on their therapist in the form of a lawsuit, and I have seen this happen to colleagues, with expensive consequences regarding time, money, and reputation. Innocence makes no difference in terms of the damage done.

Yet here I am participating in a lawsuit, and I couldn’t be more proud to do so. I have agreed to be a plaintiff in a suit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against the state of South Carolina over its production of a Christian license plate. The plate features a cross superimposed on a stained glass and bears the words “I Believe.” In South Carolina, specialty license plates are created either by an organization or by an act of the General Assembly on behalf of an organization. In either case, the organization must pay either $4,000 or produce 400 orders before the plates are created. The Christian license plate did not go through either process. It was created by the legislature on behalf of the Christian faith generally, not for an organization. Eager to produce the plate as soon as possible (and just in time for the fall elections), Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer has offered to pay the required $4,000 out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed by the state later. It is clear that the “I Believe” plate has received preferential treatment.

It is also clear that the plate is blatantly unconstitutional. The 1st Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment, this prohibition applies to state governments as well. It is significant that the plaintiffs in this case are religious leaders. I am joined by Rev. Dr. Tom Summers, a retired United Methodist minister; Rev. Dr. Monty Knight, pastor of the First Christian Church of Charleston; Rabbi Sanford Marcus, rabbi emeritus of the Tree of Life Synagogue; and the Hindu American Foundation, a non-profit advocacy organization that provides a voice for over two million Hindu-Americans. As citizens, we are offended that our legislators, who have a duty to represent all South Carolinians, are showing favoritism toward a particular group of citizens. As ministers, we are offended that the government is meddling in religious matters, an area beyond its competence and authority. The principle of the separation of church and state protects both sides from the intrusion of the other, and this is good for the integrity of democracy and religious faith.

One reporter asked me if I would like the state to produce a Unitarian Universalist license plate. I told her that our principles are too large to fit on a license plate. Then I said, “No, I would not want the state to create a UU license plate. Government has no business messing with religion, whether it’s my religion or someone else’s.” That’s my story – and the Constitution’s – and I’m sticking to it.

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