A federal judge ruled Tuesday that South Carolina can't issue license plates showing the image of a cross in front of a stained glass window along with the phrase "I Believe."
U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie said in her ruling that the license plates was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion.
"Such a law amounts to a state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular," Currie wrote.
Her ruling also singled out Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who had pushed the bill approving the license plates through the state Legislature. Christian advocates tried to get the same license plate approved in Florida, but the bill did not pass its Legislature.
Bauer wanted to accomplish in South Carolina what had been unsuccessful in Florida, Currie wrote: To "gain legislative approval of a specialty plate promoting the majority religion: Christianity. Whether motivated by sincerely held Christian beliefs or an effort to purchase political capital with religious coin, the result is the same. The statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation."
Bauer was not immediately available for comment.
The fight over the plates started shortly after Bauer helped push the legislation through in 2008. Groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee challenged the state's ability to put a religious message on a state license tag.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said government must never be allowed give favorable treatment to one faith above others.
"That's unconstitutional and un-American. Some officials seem to want to use religion as a political football," Lynn said, calling it an "appalling misuse of governmental authority, and I am thrilled that the judge put a stop to it."
Currie ordered the state to cover those groups' legal expenses.