COLUMBIA, S.C – South Carolina's lieutenant governor announced Thursday that he is willing to put up $4,000 of his own money so his state can become the first in the nation to issue "I Believe" license plates with the image of a cross and a stained glass window.
The legislation allowing the plates was one of several religious-themed bills to became laws in the closing days of the state's legislative session.
The bills mean South Carolinians attending local government meetings could soon see the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer posted on walls, pray without fear of being sued and drive home in cars with the "I Believe" plates.
Civil rights groups are considering lawsuits. An attorney for the New York-based American Jewish Congress, Mark Stern, said the bills are an obvious endorsement of religion by legislators in an election year. His group is looking to sue over the plates.
Gov. Mark Sanford allowed the license plate bill to become law without his signature, noting the state already has a process to allow special plates for any cause as long as enough people come together and put up the money needed to buy them.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said Thursday he is willing to put up the money, then get reimbursed. The state must collect either a $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders.
Bauer helped push the measure through the General Assembly, saying it gives people a way to express their beliefs. The idea came from Florida, where a proposal for an "I Believe" tag ultimately failed.
"I'm all about freedom of speech," Bauer said.
But he also said the religious bills are efforts to push back against the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups perceived as threatening South Carolinians' beliefs and traditions.
"People who support Judeo-Christian values are ever under fire now," Bauer said. "It's like they expect folks who are believers just to roll over because they're scared of the ACLU."
The latest law approved by Sanford late Wednesday allows the public posting of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer in a display of 11 documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, plus the national motto "In God We Trust."
Rep. Mac Toole, R-West Columbia, modeled the Ten Commandments bill after a Georgia law. The Senate added the Lord's Prayer despite warnings from some senators that it would invite a lawsuit.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court issued split decisions involving the Ten Commandments. The court approved a 41-year-old monument in Texas, calling it part of a secular display, but ruled against framed copies in two Kentucky courthouses, saying they were put up to promote religion. Context determines constitutionality, according to the decisions.
Sanford signed the South Carolina bill after getting an opinion from Attorney General Henry McMaster that its inclusion as part of a display teaching history and civic virtue passes constitutional muster.
"This is an example of the government's underhanded attempts to endorse one particular religious viewpoint over all others under the guise of neutral education," said T. Jeremy Gunn, director of the ACLU's Program of Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities."
Last month, the Republican governor signed legislation advising local governments how to legally pray before meetings, based on rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The state attorney general will defend governments sued for praying as the law prescribes.
Stern said the law on historical displays at least has a "thin veneer of rationale," but he called it a political nod to religious voters.
"Obviously what motivates them is the desire to post the Ten Commandments. Everything else is decoration," he said.
Toole discounted a lawsuit threat.
"There are groups that oppose everything, unless it tries to bring moral destruction of people, and I feel sad for them," he said.