Attorney general deems new 'I Believe' license plates legal

COLUMBIA --- South Carolina drivers might be able to buy a license plate with the words "I Believe" and three crosses, despite a federal judge's ruling against a previous attempt to make similar tags.

Nine months after a federal judge barred the state from making legislatively approved plates with the religious message, Attorney General Henry McMaster says a similar plate designed by a nonprofit group is legal. The plate under review at the Department of Motor Vehicles reads www.IBELIEVEsc.net along the top. It features a golden sunrise and three crosses symbolizing the site where Jesus was crucified.

The nonprofit group applied for the plates in February under a state law that allows private groups to create specialty plates if they pay a $4,000 deposit or collect at least 400 prepaid orders before production. The group officially changed its name to the Web site address in hopes of meeting new DMV rules that require tags bear the sponsoring group's name.

"The specialty license program has a secular purpose: allowing all nonprofit organizations to identify themselves by a logo or symbol," McMaster wrote in his Aug. 16 opinion. "It is our opinion that the Establishment Clause would not be violated by approval of the plate. Indeed, it is our opinion that denial would infringe upon the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment."

DMV spokeswoman Beth Parks said agency officials are reviewing the opinion.

A group that advocates separation of church and state sued in 2008 after a bill creating the previous "I Believe" plates -- featuring a Christian cross superimposed on a stained glass window -- sailed through the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer took the idea from Florida, but the proposal failed there.

Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed that lawsuit on behalf of two Christian pastors, a humanist pastor and a rabbi in South Carolina, along with the Hindu American Foundation.

They successfully argued that legislative approval amounted to the government promoting one religion over another, noting that if private groups wanted the plates made, state law provides them a way to do that.

McMaster said the new plates involve no government endorsement.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he wouldn't have a problem with the proposed tags as long as the group's application gets no special treatment.