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"I believe" car license plates

Florida: 2008

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Florida "I Believe" License plate

"I Believe" license plates from Florida

Proposed legislation in Florida:

According to the Associated Press:

"A 'Trust God' license plate was proposed in Florida in 2003. It would have given money to Christian radio stations and charities, but was never produced." 1

In early 2008, a legislative committee considered a "Trinity" plate that showed a Christ-like figure with arms outstretched. It was voted down.

A bill to approve two new religious license plates was under review by the Florida legislature during 2008-APR. One was the "I Believe" plate shown above. The other was an "In God We Trust" license plate  These, together with a number of non-religious plate designs, were approved by House committee by a vote of 8 to 2.

There are over 100 different specialty license plates approved for use by the Florida government prior to 2008-APR. They can be purchased at a premium of $25.00, and celebrate everything from manatees to the Miami Heat. The proceeds are given to the sponsoring organizations.

The "I Believe" would be the first plate in the U.S. to promote a specific religion. It would be the first plate to feature a prominent religious symbol -- a Protestant cross in this case, although previous plates had shown miniature religious symbols that were part of school crests.

The design was requested by "Faith in Teaching Inc. (FIT)," an obscure evangelical nonprofit group based in Orlando that promotes "faith-based schools activities." 1,2 [sic]  According to investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein:

"... a clique of politically well-connected Republicans managed to get their state senator to introduce legislation adding their ad hoc non-profit to the program. The group, FIT, seems to exist only as a clearinghouse for the money. FIT says it will divide the money among faith-based groups, but it hasn't offered any details on which ones, or what kind of programs." 3

Rep. Edward Bullard (D) sponsored the bill. He noted that there are custom license plates available for individuals who "... believe in their college or university [or] believe in their football team." He said that the new design is a chance for other people to put a plate on their cars with "something they believe in," he said.

Conflict with the U.S. Constitution:

There is a potential problem with the "I believe" plates.

The U.S. Constitution does not limit the interaction of governments with colleges, universities or football teams. However, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits involvement by federal and state governments in the field of religion. It has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court as prohibiting governments from actions that would:

bulletPromote a religious lifestyle over a secular lifestyle, or vice versa.
bulletPromote one faith group or religion over another: i.e. favoring Protestants over Catholics, or Christians over Muslims, or vice-versa.

These plates promote religious faith over secularism. There are no secular plates included in the package like the "I believe in reason" plates obtained by a Humanist group in South Carolina. It promotes Protestant Christianity over Roman Catholicism by portraying a Protestant "Roman" cross instead of a crucifix as favored by Catholics or a stake as favored by Jehovah's Witnesses. It obviously favors Christianity over Islam, Judaism, and other religions, because no analogous plates for other religions were covered under the bill. Thus, this bill raised immediate concern among those committed to the separation of church and state.

The Miami Herald reported state Sen. Mike Fasano (R) as noting that the law already allows drivers to purchase specialty license plates. He felt that plates displaying crosses with an 'I Believe' text would be simply one more selection open to drivers. He said:

"That's that the option of every driver who owns a vehicle. They can decide if they want to have a license plate with a cross in front of a stained-glass window. It's not different from choosing a Choose Life license plate or a manatee license pate or a Florida State University or University of Florida license plate."

Rep. Ed Bullard (D), a sponsor of the bill, said: "They may not be into the manatee, they may not be into Challenger. That segment [Christians], which is a large segment of the population, can now get a tag that they like and can express their beliefs." He said that not all groups should be able to express their religious ideas. He said that if Atheists came up with an "I Don't Believe" plate, he would probably oppose it.

The Miami Herald reported that Senator Mike Fasano (R), believes that the "I Believe" plate would be no different others currently available. He said:

"That's that the option of every driver who owns a vehicle. They can decide if they want to have a license plate with a cross in front of a stained-glass window. It's not different from choosing a Choose Life license plate or a manatee license pate or a Florida State University or University of Florida license plate." 4

However, there was opposition:

bulletHoward Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, described the enabling legislation as a clear violation of church and state. During an interview with the Miami Herald, he said:

"Maybe at this point the Legislature should begin rethinking whether a message on a state-manufactured plate, whether 'I support panthers' or 'I'm a Christian,' might be better on a bumper sticker." 5

On another occasion he said that the plate design:

"... sends a message that Florida is essentially a Christian state ..." and the "... appearance that the state is endorsing a particular religious preference."

bulletRepresentative Kelly Skidmore (D), an active Roman Catholic felt that the "I Believe" plate was inappropriate for the government to approve. She said that the plate:
"... sends a message that Florida is essentially a Christian state..." [and gives the] "appearance that the state is endorsing a particular religious preference."

bulletJosie Brown, who teaches constitutional law at the University of South Carolina said that approval of the plate could open the state to a lawsuit. She said: "It would be an interesting close call."

The legislature ultimately rejected the plate design in 2008, only to have two plates emerge in 2009 and be rejected again. 6

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jessica Gresko, "Florida lawmakers debate offering a Christian license plate," Associated Press, 2008-APR-24, at: http://www.breitbart.com/
  2. FaithInTeaching.org and FaithInTeaching.com are held through Domains by Proxy, Inc. The former was cited as the URL for Faith in Teaching Inc during early 2008, but neither domain appears to be active as of 2009-NOV.
  3. "The outfit behind Florida's 'I Believe' License Plates," Majikthise, 2009-APR-30. at: http://majikthise.typepad.com/
  4. Aaron Leichman, "Florida considers 'I Believe' license plates," Christianity Today, 2008-APR-17, at: http://www.christiantoday.com/
  5. Aaron Leichman, "Florida considers 'I Believe' license plates," The Christian Post, 2008-APR-16, at: http://www.christianpost.com/
  6. "OPPOSE SB 642," American Civil Liberties Union, 2009-APR-26, at: http://www.au.org/

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Home > "Hot" religious topics > Abortion > License plates > here

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Copyright © 2008 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2008-MAY
Latest update: 2009-NOV-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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