Religious License Plate Blocked, Hindu American Foundation Prevails in Suit
December 11, 2008 (Columbia, SC): In a ruling earlier today, a federal judge blocked South Carolina plans to issue a Christian themed license plate that was to feature the phrase,"I Believe," above a gold cross and stained-glass church window. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which had filed suit against the state of South Carolina in June along with an interfaith coalition of co-plaintiffs including local Christian and Jewish leaders as well as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, applauded the court's ruling. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watch dog group based in Washington, DC represented the coalition.
U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie issued the preliminary injunction forbidding the state to issue or manufacture the plates. She also ordered the state to remove information about the plates from the state website and inform people who had requested the plates that they would not be available. The written opinion is expected by early next week.
"The 'I Believe' license plate is a clear example of government favoritism toward one religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United. "The court drove home an important point: South Carolina officials have no business meddling in religious matters."
The South Carolina legislature mired itself in controversy earlier this year when it unanimously passed legislation to produce the license plate. 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.
State Rep. Bill Sandifer, when asked by a reporter whether he would support a Muslim license plate, replied, "Absolutely and positively no…. I would not because of my personal belief, and because I believe that wouldn't be the wish of the majority of the constituency in this house district." Other legislators had also openly admitted that they would not vote for similar plates for minority faiths.
"The 'I Believe' license plate sends the message that South Carolina has a favored religion,"said Ayesha Khan, Americans United Legal Director. "That's one message the state is not permitted to transmit." Khan argued the case here before Judge Currie.
The Hindu American Foundation, established in 2003, first gained attention as a religious liberty advocacy group when it filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court against the display of the Ten Commandments on public land. The Foundation has worked with Americans United on several other legal efforts as well.
"The U.S. Constitution prevailed in South Carolina, and the great pluralistic values promoted by our nation's founding fathers were upheld today," added Suhag Shukla, HAF's Managing Director and Legal Counsel. "Government simply cannot privilege one faith over others, and so this ruling is a victory for Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike."
The Hindu American Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)(3), non-partisan organization, promoting the Hindu and American ideals of understanding, tolerance and pluralism.