COLUMBIA -- South Carolina drivers can buy religious license plates that feature three crosses and a sunrise, 2 1/2 years after a federal judge declared a previous legislative effort for the "I Believe" tags unconstitutional.
The new tags are sponsored by the nonprofit group www.ibelievesc.net as allowed under state law.
The new tag is a nonpolitical way for Christians of all denominations to share their faith, said Adrian Grimes, spokeswoman for the group's upcoming rollout of the plate.
A federal judge ruled in 2009 that "I Believe" tags that legislators created through a state law violated the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion by government. That plate featured a cross and stained glass window.
The new plates show the nonprofit's name across the top, with the letters "JC" between the image of three crosses on a hill and the license number.
Grimes said she hopes the plate's bright image makes people happy. The yellow sunrise represents a new beginning, "another opportunity to try to be better the next day," she said. "The cross is a sign of grace, and I need His grace every day, all day long."
A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which was among groups that sued over the 2008 law, said it sees no constitutional problem with these plates.
"As long as all groups have the same access to the process, it doesn't raise constitutional issues," said spokesman Joseph Conn.
State law allows nonprofit groups to create specialty plates by either collecting 400 prepaid applications or making a $4,000 deposit.
The previous court fight started shortly after former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer helped push the legislation through in 2008, saying the plates gave people a way to express their beliefs. Bauer even offered to put up $4,000 to jumpstart the process and get reimbursed after tags sold. The bill became law without the signature of Gov. Mark Sanford, who noted the state already allows private groups to create license plates for any cause.
Americans United argued South Carolina's government was endorsing Christianity by authorizing the plates.
Bauer's offer proved unnecessary.
It took fewer than three days in fall 2008 for the Department of Motor Vehicles to collect the necessary 400 prepaid orders to cover the cost of making the plates. But those plates were never made. U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie ordered production efforts to stop in November 2008 as the case progressed. She ruled them unconstitutional a year later.
The new plates have been available since Jan. 4 for an extra $25 over the cost of a regular license plate. As of Jan. 31, 56 had been sold, said DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks.
The profits go to www.IBELIEVEsc.net . Grimes said the money will used for nonpolitical community efforts. Those might include health projects, and food and coat drives, she said.
She also joked about a possible side effect of the tag: Safer driving.
"If you're driving with those tags, you can't be flipping people off and cursing out the window," she said with a laugh. "So it could lead to fewer accidents."
The plates will be added to the more than 130 specialty license plates South Carolina drivers can purchase for colleges, sports, hobbies, veterans and charities -- from six different NASCAR plates to "Shag" and "Parrothead" plates. In all, the state has 370 tags, which includes those for legislators and members of boards and commissions, Parks said.
One that reads "In God We Trust" is by far the state's most popular specialty plate, on 865,230 vehicles statewide. Its secular counterpoint, which reads "In Reason We Trust," is on 412 vehicles, Parks said.