MIAMI – Florida drivers can order more than 100 specialty license plates celebrating everything from manatees to the Miami Heat, but one now under consideration would be the first in the nation to explicitly promote a specific religion.
The Florida Legislature is considering a specialty plate with a design that includes a Christian cross, a stained-glass window and the words "I Believe."
Rep. Edward Bullard, the plate's sponsor, said people who "believe in their college or university" or "believe in their football team" already have license plates they can buy. The new design is a chance for others to put a tag on their cars with "something they believe in," he said.
If the plate is approved, Florida would become the first state to have a license plate featuring a religious symbol that's not part of a college logo. Approval would almost certainly face a court challenge.
The problem with the state manufacturing the plate is that it "sends a message that Florida is essentially a Christian state" and, second, gives the "appearance that the state is endorsing a particular religious preference," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
The "I Believe" license plate still has a way to go before it reaches the roads. The proposal is part of a package of license plates being debated in the Senate and ready for a floor vote. In the House, the bill that would authorize the plate has passed one committee 8-2. The Legislature's annual session ends May 2.
Some lawmakers say the state should be careful. Rep. Kelly Skidmore said she is a Roman Catholic and goes to Mass on Sundays, but she believes the "I Believe" plate is inappropriate for the government to produce.
"It's not a road I want to go down. I don't want to see the Star of David next. I don't want to see a Torah next. None of that stuff is appropriate to me," said Skidmore, a Democrat who voted against the plate in committee. "I just believe that."
Florida's specialty license plates require the payment of additional fees, some of which go to causes the plates endorse.
One plate approved in 2004, displaying the motto "Family First," funds Sheridan House, which provides family programs but also sees its purpose as "sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Bible" and "information about the Christian faith."
The bill creating the "I Believe" plate would also create an "In God We Trust" plate to benefit the children of soldiers and law enforcement officers whose parents have died. It also could face opposition as a violation of the separation of church and state.
An Indiana plate with the same "In God We Trust" phrase has been challenged by the ACLU, but the courts so far have deemed it legal, arguing that it is comparable with other specialty plates.
This isn't the first time a Florida license plate design has created religious controversy. In 1999, lawmakers approved a bright yellow "Choose Life" license plate with a picture of a boy and girl. It raises money for agencies that encourage women to not have abortions.
That generated a court battle, with abortion rights groups saying the plate had religious overtones. But it was ruled legal, and about a dozen states now have similar plates.
A "Trust God" license plate was proposed in Florida in 2003. It would have given money to Christian radio stations and charities, but was never produced.
Earlier this year, a legislative committee was shown an image of a "Trinity" plate that showed a Christlike figure with his arms outstretched. It and two other plates were voted down.
The group asking for the "I Believe" plate, the Orlando-based nonprofit Faith in Teaching Inc., supports faith-based schools activities. The plate would cost drivers an extra $25 annual fee.
Approving the plate could open the state to legal challenges, according to Josie Brown, who teaches constitutional law at the University of South Carolina. And it's not certain who would win.
"It would be an interesting close call," Brown said.
Simon, of the ACLU, said approval of the plate could prompt many other groups to seek their own designs, and they could claim discrimination if their plans were rejected. That could even allow the Ku Klux Klan to get a plate, Simon said.
Bullard, the plate's sponsor, isn't sure all groups should be able to express their preference. If atheists came up with an "I Don't Believe" plate, for example, he would probably oppose it.