A federal district court ruled Tuesday that the "I Believe" license plate approved by the S.C. Legislature violates the constitutional separation of church and state and cannot be issued.
In a summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie said the plate was based on a discriminatory law. "Such a law amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular," Currie said.
The plate featured a cross set against a stained-glass window.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which served as counsel in the case, praised the decision.
"This is great news," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement.
"Government must never be allowed to express favored treatment for one faith over others. That's unconstitutional and un-American."
Americans United filed the lawsuit in June 2008 on behalf of 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 -- as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
In legal briefs, Americans United asserted on First Amendment grounds that the plate was unlike other specialty tags offered by the state. The measure authorizing the special plates was passed unanimously by both houses of the Legislature, with support from Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
The judge, who singled out Bauer, said legislators and other state officials have unnecessarily drawn the state into an expensive lawsuit.
"Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same," Currie wrote in her decision.
She called the case "a textbook example" of an overreaching government that has breached core constitutional principles.
"Despite such clearly established law, this state's limited resources have been used to promote, pass, and defend a state law, the 'I Believe' Act, which authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a license plate which must contain 'the words "I Believe" and a cross superimposed on a stained glass window,' " Currie wrote in her summary judgment.
Bauer, who helped fund the specialty plate and sponsored a petition drive in support of it, held an impromptu press conference Tuesday in Charleston during which he promised to ask Attorney General Henry McMaster to appeal the ruling.
"For those who say proclaiming 'I believe' violates the Constitution by giving preference to Christianity, I think this lawsuit clearly discriminates against persons of faith," Bauer said.
He accused Currie of being "a liberal judge" who is pursuing her own interests over those of the state's residents.
"I could say that this is yet another example of judicial activism, of federal judges out of control," Bauer said. "My instincts tell me that it's even deeper than that. I think it's another attack on Christianity, and I'm not going to sit by and watch this one happen."
Bauer insisted that the specialty plate "reflects core values that are meaningful to our society" and that displaying the plate is a matter of free speech and expression.
"I don't understand why witnessing for fundamental, enduring values is controversial or threatening," he said.
Lynn has rejected the claim that the lawsuit infringes on free expression.
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," he said earlier this year. "We brought this lawsuit because the state Legislature created a special license plate for the Christian faith in violation of the Constitution. All religions should be equal in America, and the government must not favor one over others."