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South Carolina Says 'No' to Religious Tolerance

By Wendy Kaminer, 

     “(M)ost Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith,” the Pew Forum happily announced this week.  Pew’s widely reported, 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” found that Americans combine religiosity (92% profess belief in God or a “universal spirit”) with tolerance:  “Most Americans agree with the statement that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life.”   This portrait of America as an open-minded, religiously diverse nation comports with the national self-image, perhaps not surprisingly, considering that Pew’s findings are based on a survey of 35,000 Americans, many of whom may profess beliefs that they haven’t quite internalized.      

    In South Carolina, at least, religious sectarianism prevails.  There, state government has decreed production of special Christian license plates, picturing a cross against a stained glass window and emblazoned with the words, “I Believe.” The state does not sponsor license plates signifying belief in any other religion, or no religion; in fact, as Americans United has stressed, state regulations of vanity plates insure that “other religions will not be able to get similar license plates expressing different viewpoints, nor can a comparable ‘I Don’t Believe’ license plate be issued.”   

    Americans United is challenging this clearly unconstitutional practice in federal court, and, so far, proponents of the “I Believe” plate have reacted to the lawsuit with predictable, crowd pleasing stupidity: “I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally,” the Republican House speaker opined.  Never mind that plaintiffs in the AU case are four clergymen and the American Hindu Foundation.  The Lieutenant Governor, who has offered to loan the state $4000 to facilitate production of the “I Believe” plate, defended state sponsorship of the plate as a “freedom of speech issue.”  Never mind that it’s the people who have freedom of speech against the state, which has no freedom of speech against the people.  The state has power; the people have rights, designed to check abuses of power, like state sponsorship of sectarian religious practices and beliefs, as Lieutenant Governor Bauer might learn from an elementary civics class.  “Most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith?”  South Carolina didn’t get Pew’s memo, I guess.

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