Cross could adorn state license plates

This proposed license plate in Florida is similar to the one proposed for South Carolina

COLUMBIA — The cross could soon grace a state specialty license plate.

But if the Legislature endorses the new plate, which would say "I Believe" across the bottom and carry the image of a cross in front of a stained-glass window, the state could end up in court.

The bill received key approval in the House on Wednesday with a 109-0 vote. A change from the Senate version will send it back to that body before it could go to Gov. Mark Sanford's desk.

"People can express their views however they want, on a bumper sticker,

whatever," said Ronald Lindsay, director of the First Amendment Task Force for the Council for Secular Humanism, a New York-based group.

"Once you get into the license plate area, that's an official government document, or tag. There is simply no need for it."

Sen. Larry Grooms sees things differently.

This is just one of several bills the Bonneau Republican has sponsored that helps the state use constitutional law to carve out rights for people to display their faith in public places.

Grooms signed on to a bill that lays out ground rules for prayer at public meetings and another that would let government agencies and schools display historic and religious documents, including the Ten Commandments, side by side.

Both those bills are making their way through the legislative process and are on track to become law.

South Carolina residents can chose between about 100 speciality plates, including six NASCAR tags and one for the Boy Scouts, all sorts of colleges, the Morris Island Lighthouse, even one for the H.L. Hunley submarine.

Grooms said he jumped at the chance to co-sponsor the legislation for the "I Believe" plate, which is based on a similar effort in Florida. It would not be the first religiously toned tag. "In God We Trust" is already a option. "Choose Life SC" will be available in the fall.

State law allows the Legislature to create specialty tags, or gives the state Department of Motor Vehicles the authority to issue plates designed by groups ordering at least 400 of one design. The Legislature approved the tags with "In God We Trust," but "Choose Life SC" was submitted by a group.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the New York-based American Jewish Congress, wrote Sanford a letter and urged him to veto the legislation creating the "I Believe" tag on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Stern said that if the bill becomes law, his group would be prepared to take South Carolina to court.

"There must be something more important to deal with in South Carolina," Stern said. "The Legislature wants to be on record saying that they like Christians."

The governor's office will not take a stance on the bill until it can research the issue further, according to Joel Sawyer, Sanford's press secretary.

"We're going to take a look," Sawyer said. "We certainly don't have a problem with what it says."