By the Rev. Dr. Thomas Summers, Rabbi Sanford Marcus and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones.
It’s a simple question: Should our state government favor one religion over others?
The obvious answer is, “No!”
South Carolina, just like the rest of the United States, is made up of a wide array of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans and other religious groups. There are also people who follow no spiritual path at all.
But when our state’s legislators vote unanimously in favor of a “Christian” license plate, while not giving any other faith group similar treatment, what they are doing is, in fact, favoring one religious tradition over others. This goes against the clear mandate of the U.S. Constitution, not to mention the basic principle of fairness.
Much is at risk when the government involves itself in religion. As leaders of different faith groups, we are especially sensitive to this threat. And though each of us possesses different religious beliefs, what we have in common is a commitment to church-state separation and respect for diversity within our community. We have dedicated ourselves to the cause of keeping peace among differing faith groups, both in our home state of South Carolina and around the world.
That’s why South Carolina’s “I Believe” license plate feels like a slap in the face. After striving to preserve religious harmony, we see the South Carolina General Assembly undercutting that work by approving a license plate that makes non-Christians feel threatened and unwanted in our communities.
We joined with other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State to stop the South Carolina state government from issuing and distributing this inappropriate plate.
The plate, which includes the words “I Believe” accompanied by a cross superimposed on a stained-glass window, is different from license plates requested by private groups. This one originated in the Legislature and was passed by statute, and it does not have to abide by the same requirements as privately requested plates through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Legislature has not adopted a similar plate for any other faith group, let alone for those who choose not to follow any faith. Does anyone really think that the Legislature is likely to adopt a special plate for Islam, Scientology or Wicca? After approval of the “Christian” plate, some legislators flatly stated that they would not.
As state representatives, legislators are supposed to represent all the people in the state, including religious minorities. James Madison once indicated that government needs “to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.”
Our Constitution does not allow government to favor one faith group over others. The First Amendment requires the government to make “no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The South Carolina General Assembly has already encouraged the posting of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in public buildings. This license plate just further suggests (and wrongly so) that Christianity is the official state religion.
The “I Believe” plate is a clear violation of our vitally important separation of religion and government. We need that essential constitutional principle to preserve the right of all citizens to believe in whichever faith they choose or no faith at all. That’s what this country has always been about.
Our state should not bully members of South Carolina’s minority groups. Christianity, broadly speaking, represents the majority of the American faithful. That, however, does not mean the rights of minorities can be disregarded. Government must protect the rights of those with different ideas and beliefs, not make them feel inferior.
A judge will decide later this week whether the state will be allowed to issue these license plates. We are optimistic that we will prevail; we believe the law is clear. But regardless of the outcome, we will continue our commitment to diversity and interfaith harmony in South Carolina.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Summers is a retired minister with the United Methodist Church and resides in Columbia, S.C. He served for nearly 35 years as a full-time chaplain at the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.
Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus is rabbi emeritus at the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, S.C. He served as rabbi at Tree of Life for 20 years and continues to serve as a guest rabbi for congregations across the state.
The Rev. Dr. Neal Jones has served as a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia for three years.