License plates 4 Jesus

Sometimes, it seems like you can't swing a dead cat in New York City without hitting a house of worship of one kind or another, whether it's a grand Neogothic structure like St. Patrick's Cathedral, a showplace like the Buddhist temple in Chinatown that used to be a movie theater, or a simple storefront mosque. Far from being a godless town, as so many critics maintain, New York is chockablock with religion, and with religious people, many of them visibly so (i.e., Hasidim). Just within a few blocks of the apartment I recently moved out of in Brooklyn were a Baptist church, an Orthodox sheol shul (thanks, Holly!), a Caribbean Pentecostal megachurch, a Catholic church that hosted a lot of cop-and-firefighter funerals, a Hindu temple, and a Halal butcher (I'm sure there was a mosque nearby, but I don't read Arabic).

But one thing we don't have a whole lot of is public religiosity. Oh, there's definitely proselytizing, and subway preachers, and the Jehovah's Witnesses have their world HQ in Brooklyn Heights, so there's a lot of leafletting, and there are neighborhood religious festivals all the time. Even the Scientologists and Jews for Jesus are pretty active. But there's no real pressure to wear one's religion on one's sleeve, and while our local pols definitely play court to the big religious leaders, they don't talk about religion and God as part of their campaigning or their jobs. It's just not done, you know? Besides, with so many religions and ethnicities in the city -- if I'm not mistaken, Flushing, Queens is the single most diverse spot on Earth -- you can't make religious appeals as part of your campaign. Because you might leave someone out. And this is true not just of the city but of the state, and really the whole region (I swear, I lived in Connecticut during two of Joe Lieberman's Senate races and it came as a surprise to me during 2000 that he was very religious. He just never discussed religion, and nobody asked him about it, until he began to do national pandering; he'd never have gotten elected if he had -- people in Connecticut get very nervous when pols break out the God talk).

That does not seem to be a concern in South Carolina, where the state legislature recently voted unanimously to create state-issued "I Believe" license plates with a cross in front of a stained-glass window. And now they're being sued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is seeking on behalf of three Christian clergy, a rabbi and a Hindu group to stop the issuance of the plates.

Let's be clear: this is a state action promoting one religion over all others:
Approval of the plate “was a clear signal that Christianity is the preferred religion of South Carolina,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group’s executive director and a United Church of Christ minister, “and obviously we don’t believe the Constitution allows this.”
South Carolina allows private groups to put pretty much whatever they want on a license plate as long as they put up $4000 or have 400 prepaid orders. But that's not what happened here:
The bill sailed through the Legislature with little discussion earlier this year. Gov. Mark Sanford let it become law without his signature because the state already allows private groups to create license plates for any cause.

Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell said residents asked for a way to express their beliefs, and legislators responded.

He disputed Lynn's accusation that they were pandering to constituents in an election year.

"That's what critics always say when they see something they don't like," Harrell said. "I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally."

Lynn said his group would not have opposed the "I Believe" plates had they been advocated by private groups. State law allows private groups to create specialty plates as long as they first collect either a $4,000 deposit or 400 prepaid orders.

Lt. Gov. André Bauer said last week that he is willing to put up the money, then get reimbursed, though the Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman said that isn't necessary. Bauer said the idea came from Florida, where a proposal for an "I Believe" tag failed.
Apparently there were no private groups clamoring for the chance to tacky up their vehicles with a custom plate announcing their religiosity -- so the state stepped in to fill the perceived unmet need of South Carolina's citizens to announce their religiosity by tackying up their cars.* Their specifically Christian religiosity. Because Lord knows, if one can't announce one's Christian beliefs via state-issued license plate, one might as well just pack it in and start worshiping Satan, since *he* doesn't ask for tribute via vehicle registration (goats will do). And certainly it's important to show up Florida as the state with the most religiosity.

What these state legislators don't get is what Americans United does get -- that state interference in religion is not just a danger to the state, it's a danger to religion, and the best thing for religion is not state support, but benign indifference.
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* The impulse to decorate your car and turn it into a statement of your beliefs is something else I don't really get, but then, I haven't owned a car since 1993. Plus, I can use this space to yammer at you.

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