Hindus Join Christians and Jews in Opposing Religious License Plate in South Carolina

June 20, 2008 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)-- The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) again affirmed its track record as a leading proponent of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by filing suit in federal court in South Carolina yesterday. Joining several Christian and Jewish leaders, the Foundation sued South Carolina state officials over a new state-approved license plate that would feature the words, “I Believe,” with a prominent yellow Christian cross and a multicolored stained glass church window in the background. HAF's co-plaintiffs include four South Carolina clergy – the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones. The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state.

The South Carolina legislature unanimously passed legislation to produce the license plate, and South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a Republican, personally pledged the required $4,000 to produce the plate--with the money to be reimbursed by the state at a later date. Republican Gov. Mark Sanford allowed the bill to become law without his signature. The legislature has neither proposed nor made available a similar specialty plate for any other faith. The complaint in Summers v. Adams charges that the Christian plate gives preferential governmental treatment to one particular faith. It asks the court to prevent South Carolina officials from producing them.

"The state's leaders have blatantly crossed the wall of separation by giving outright special treatment to one religious faith community over all others," stated Suhag Shukla, the Foundation's Legal Counsel, "It is divisive and just the kind of majoritarianism and political kowtowing that our Founding Fathers foresaw and sought to prevent as they drafted the Establishment Clause."

South Carolinians may propose specialty license plates, but only after a fairly rigorous administrative process. According to current South Carolina state law, specialty plates can either be created by an organization or by an act of the state legislature on behalf of an organization. The organization must then either pay $4,000 in advance of production or provide a minimum of 400 prepaid orders before the plates are created. The ‘I Believe’ license plate, however, was created by the legislature to recognize Christianity generally, and not on behalf of any particular organization as required by law. This preference that the South Carolina legislators demonstrated for one religion over others is the basis for the current litigation filed by HAF and others.

"It is truly outrageous that South Carolina tax dollars will be used to privilege one faith over all others with this move," added Shukla. "Hindus and adherents of other minority faiths are clearly rendered to second class citizenship by this legislation."

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is representing the interfaith coalition in this lawsuit. "I can’t think of a more flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s promise of equal treatment for all faiths," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United. "I believe these plates will not see the light of day.”

This is not the Foundation's first foray in Establishment Clause advocacy. HAF, over the years, has joined broad and diverse interfaith coalitions in cases involving the state's improper endorsement of a particular religion or religious view, including public funding of church renovations; school staff led prayer; denial to members of minority faith communities of the ability to engage in legislative prayer; and public displays of the Ten Commandments.