Image: 'I Believe' license plate
James Moore  /  AP
South Carolina legislators based their law approving a new license plate on this one proposed in Florida, which lawmakers ultimately rejected. The actual design for South Carolina's version of the 'I Believe' license plate has yet to be finalized.
updated 6/19/2008 5:54:56 PM ET 2008-06-19T21:54:56

A group that advocates separation of church and state filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to prevent South Carolina from becoming the first state to create "I Believe" license plates.

The group contends that South Carolina's government is endorsing Christianity by allowing the plates, which would include a cross superimposed on a stained glass window.

Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Christian pastors, a humanist pastor and a rabbi in South Carolina, along with the Hindu American Foundation.

"I do believe these 'I Believe' plates will not see the light of day because the courts, I'm confident, will see through this," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for South Carolina, asks a judge to stop the state from making the plates and rule that the law allowing them violates the First Amendment.

State to take orders in August
A spokeswoman said the state Department of Motor Vehicles had not yet received the lawsuit and planned to go ahead with the plates unless told otherwise. The agency plans to unveil the final design and start taking orders by late August.

The bill sailed through the Legislature with little discussion earlier this year. Gov. Mark Sanford let it become law without his signature because the state already allows private groups to create license plates for any cause.

Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell said residents asked for a way to express their beliefs, and legislators responded.

He disputed Lynn's accusation that they were pandering to constituents in an election year.

"That's what critics always say when they see something they don't like," Harrell said. "I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally."

Lynn said his group would not have opposed the "I Believe" plates had they been advocated by private groups. State law allows private groups to create specialty plates as long as they first collect either a $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders.

An issue of free speech?
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said last week that he is willing to put up the money, then get reimbursed, though the Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman said that isn't necessary. Bauer said the idea came from Florida, where a proposal for an "I Believe" tag failed.

He called it a freedom-of-speech issue.

But a Methodist pastor who joined the lawsuit, the retired Rev. Thomas Summers of Columbia, said the plate provokes discrimination.

"I think this license plate really is divisive and creates the type of religious discord I've devoted my life to healing," he said.

Another of the ministers, the Rev. Robert Knight of Charleston, said the plates cheapen the Christian message.

"As an evangelical Christian, I don't think civil religion enhances the Christian religion. It compromises it," Knight said. "That's the fundamental irony. It's very shallow from a Christian standpoint."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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