A federal judge ruled Tuesday that South Carolina can't issue license plates showing the image of a cross in front of a stained glass window along with the phrase "I Believe."
U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie's ruling said the license plate was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion by government.
Within hours, a private Christian group said the ruling doesn't stand in the way of its "plan B" to get a similar plate issued using a state law that permits private groups to issue tags they design.
The fight over the plates started shortly after Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer helped push the legislation through in 2008. Groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee challenged the state's ability to put a religious message on a state license tag.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said government must never be allowed to give favorable treatment to one faith above others.
"That's unconstitutional and un-American. Some officials seem to want to use religion as a political football," Lynn said, calling it an "appalling misuse of governmental authority, and I am thrilled that the judge put a stop to it."
Currie ordered the state to cover those groups' legal expenses.
Her ruling singled out Bauer after he pushed a tag Christian advocates sought in Florida, but legislators there did not approve.
Bauer wanted to accomplish in South Carolina what had been unsuccessful in Florida, Currie wrote: 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."
Bauer said he wasn't surprised by the ruling and would like to see it appealed.
"I don't expect anything different from a liberal judge who was appointed by Bill Clinton," Bauer said. "If she wants to single me out, so be it."
Bauer said it "once again shows how liberal judges are not just interpreting the law but making legislation."
But the Palmetto Family Council will try to get the tags on the cars faster. The council registered "I Believe" as a group's name with the South Carolina Secretary of State in March as the license tag case simmered on Currie's docket.
"This is day one for that process," said Oran Smith, the council's president. "If we meet all the requirements, which I hope we would as an organization, we would certainly want to move forward very quickly with our own 'I Believe' tag."
No design had been settled on, but Smith likes the cross and stained glass design in the tag Currie nixed. It "makes the kind of statement we'd want to make," he said.
Americans United hasn't taken a position on the council's new plans to get the plate produced, legal director Ayesha Khan said.
"It is a different thing because it would be privately initiated," she said, but there may remain legal challenges for the state Department of Motor Vehicles handling such a tag.
And what of Bauer's call for an appeal? "They're just squandering public dollars," Khan said.