July 5, 2008

Religion, free speech, and license plates.

Here is a NYT op-ed about automobile license plates. The writer —Stefan Lonce, who has a book on the subject of vanity license plates — distinguishes 2 forms of religious speech via license plate. First, there are the specialty license plates. South Carolina has introduced a Christian-themed plate that looks like this:


Second, there are vanity plates, and the states sometimes reject the letter/word combinations a driver requests. There is, we are told, federal court lawsuit about Vermont's rejection of a vanity plate that would read JN36NT (which is a reference to a Biblical passage).

It seems obvious that the individual expression in the form of a vanity license plate is the preferable to the state's provision of the religious message on a specialty plate. The "I Believe" specialty plate is almost surely a state endorsement of Christianity that violates the Establishment Clause. (There's no array of specialty plates for different religions and no atheist plate. What would an atheist plate look like?)

But everyone knows that what's on a vanity plate is chosen by the car-owner and doesn't represent the state's point of view. Vermont seems to be overdoing a concern about Establishment Clause and blundering into a Free Speech violation (though, according to Lonce, the federal district court approved the state's decision). The trouble with vanity plates is that at least some of them do need to be censored — there are always some people who want "F**KYU" — so it won't work to have individual choice as the only filter.

Lonce thinks the problem of censoring vanity plates can be solved by setting up a national data base, pooling the efforts of all the states to identify the offending letter/number combinations. An alternative is just to get rid of vanity plates altogether, but states make a lot of money selling them, and people want to buy them.

67 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

A book about vanity license plates??

George said...

People who festoon their cars with vanity plates, stickers, and decals are more prone to road rage, according to a recent study.

Bumperart.com

An Abu Dhabian paid $14 million for a vanity plate.

Jake said...

Since God actually resides in the Low Country just south of Charleston, South Carolina gets special dispensation in matters of church/state. You'd think the NYT would know that much.

k said...

Ann.. In reality, there are already lists and books of "naughty" configurations that are shared amongst the auto licensing bureaucracies. They contain not only the obvious combinations, but also those that look OK on first glance, but seen in a mirror, have a racy message. I used to work for the DMV, and every requested configuration was matched up against these known combinations, first by the computer, then by a succession of human beings. Things still got thru, but mostly when the configuration referenced a newly coined term. The best example I can think of is when the plate "BOINKN" got out on the road. It took a while, but someone must have complained because it was off the road after a period of a couple three years. None of the folks without children at home knew what the term meant!

I appreciate your distinction, by the way, between a specialty plate that legislators approve for circulation, versus a state-issued universal plate that you'd have to display whether you wanted to or not. Specialty plates (displaying an organization's design/logo, etc.) in our state require proof of a donation to the sponsoring specialty organization. The extra fee you pay to have a vanity plate (you pick the configuration)goes to the state. A small but important consideration, perhaps.

Theo Boehm said...

I liked the New Hampshire vanity plate I saw about 15 years ago that said, "CHINGA."

As a Spanish-speaking ex-Californian, that spoke volumes about the then white-bread nature of New Hampshire, which included being either very libertarian, ignorant of Spanish, or, most probably, both.

You would never have gotten away with that in California or anywhere else in the Great Southwest in the past, and I'm sure you wouldn't in New Hampshire now, either.

There may be something here about "evolving standards," but I'll leave that to others to thrash out.

I do wonder about naughty words in more obscure languages, however.

Kirk Parker said...

"Lonce thinks the problem of censoring vanity plates can be solved by setting up a national data base"

Yeah, because federalizing a problem is always the fastest way to solve it.

Yeah, right.

Susan said...

The best vanity plate I ever heard of (on Car Talk) was one that said simply "Beyond" and was attached to a blue Horizon.

Simon said...

"What would an atheist plate look like?"

A picture of the universe with the driver at the center, perhaps?

(kidding, kidding)

Dust Bunny Queen said...

TI 3VOM On a Porsche.

Imagine it in your rear view mirror and the Porshe pushing you on the freeway.

chuckR said...

If I didn't want to go as unremarked upon as possible in a Guards Red Porsche, I'd like FASTFWD for my plate. However, truth in advertising would suggest a long euro-style plate reading OLD FART OUT CRUISING.

corporate law drudge said...

Setting up a national database hardly constitutes "federalizing" (is that a word?) the problem. Such a state-shared resource need not even involve the federal government.

The God plate is ok by me as long as there's a Flying Spaghetti Monster plate too.

corporate law drudge said...

Setting up a national database hardly constitutes "federalizing" (is that a word?) the problem. Such a state-shared resource need not even involve the federal government.

The God plate is ok by me as long as there's a Flying Spaghetti Monster plate too.

Titan said...

A few years ago I saw a beautiful blond racing up behind me in a black convertible. She passed me at nearly 100 mph, but I could tell she was a knockout. As she pulled away, I could read her vanity plate. It said "DANGER".

Now that was sexy.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

"white-bread"?!?

Some forms of racism are more acceptable than others.

Titan said...

FWIW, South Carolina does have a secular humanist plate. It says "In reason we trust."

However, I think someone submitted a design for a straight out atheist plate saying "I do not believe" and the South Carolina legislature rejected it. They can't reject "I do not believe" while accepting "I believe".

Bissage said...

All things eventually lead back to Althouse.

I read this post earlier this morning and then went out to run a few chores. What do I see on the road? A car with the license plate GODZGUD.

And I marveled at how clever that person must be to have figured out how to fit so uplifting a message into 7 characters. I felt better for having seen it.

But life is complicated and I also felt a bit crestfallen realizing there was no way I could ever express my take on The Almighty.

I mean . . . 7 characters for: “GOD EXISTS BUT HE'S MOSTLY INDIFFERENT TO WHAT GOES ON AROUND HERE”?

WTF!

downtownlad said...

I guarantee that there are at least four Supreme Court justices who would have no qualms with the South Carolina "I Believe" plate.

Titan said...

IMDEIST

EnigmatiCore said...

"What would an atheist plate look like?)"

Like a normal plate?

If they made plates for other faiths available, with cost commensurate with demand (the more wanted, the less it is because the costs of developing the template et al are spread further), then would you consider that to be an issue? I wouldn't.

If they made special plates that had a spot for a sticker that one could purchase from licensed dealers, and dealers could lose their license by selling an obscene sticker, would that be problematic?

Beth said...

They can't reject "I do not believe" while accepting "I believe".

Well, reason tells us they ought not be to able to do that, but Louisiana's courts ruled the state could sell a "Choose Life" license plate while rejecting the proposal for "Pro-Choice" plate. I don't think we're the only state that's done this.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I wish the State of North Carolina would get a clue. They have about 9999 regular plates that all begin with WTF.

The first time I saw it, I LOL'd, and I still chuckle when I see them.

Theo Boehm said...

If you don't like organized religion, yet worry a bit about morality and metaphysics (and who doesn't) "IMDEIST" is fine. But you might also consider the alternative of "SPINOZA."

There probably aren't too many states where either of those are still available, but you could try obvious variants if you really want people to know you aren't a crude atheist.

Now what would you choose if you do want people to know you aren't merely an athiest, but a really crude one?

Titan said...

Beth:

Your "choose life" example doesn't involve religion, so it is different. Saying "choose life over abortion" is constitutionally different from saying "choose Christianity".

Jim Hu said...

Can you get the same text with a UFO instead of a cross?

Christy said...

Bissage, I can get it down to 9 letters, RAND(GOD) Which isn't exactly saying God is a random number generator, but close.

EnigmatiCore said...

Isn't that like saying God is the seed of a random number generator?

And isn't that most likely true if God exists?

Theo Boehm said...

See SPINOZA above. Or maybe LEIBNITZ if you're inclined to believe God has a will (maybe).

Metaphysics on a number plate. Who woulda thunk?

rightwingprof said...

If government were efficient, the cost-benefit analysis, and not whether somebody's feelings were hurt because they were left out, would determine what plates are available. A Hindu may want a special Hindu plate, but if there isn't enough demand for them to justify the cost of making them, it's money flushed down the toilet -- what government does best.

I fail to see why this plate is an establishment clause violation. Nobody is forcing anyone to get it.

From Inwood said...

My vanity Plate would read:

Ozymandias

(if they'd allow that many letters).

Titan said...

I fail to see why this plate is an establishment clause violation. Nobody is forcing anyone to get it.

It's an establishment clause violation when the state allows this plate but then refuses to let someone get a plate that says "I do not believe."

I agree that there should be minimum financial demand thresholds for the plates, but any plaintiff will be smart enough to test this before suing. (I think Americans United already tried to order the non-belief plates and got rejected.)

From Inwood said...

Christy

RAND(GOD)

A pseudorandom thought, perhaps, but some, speeding by, might think you meant "Ayn Rand is my God".

From Inwood said...

George

Based upon my random, probably unscientific, study:

People who festoon their cars with vanity plates, stickers, and decals are losers.

EnigmatiCore said...

First, 'I fail to see why this plate is an establishment clause violation. Nobody is forcing anyone to get it.'

Then: 'It's an establishment clause violation when the state allows this plate but then refuses to let someone get a plate that says "I do not believe."'

That is an assertion. The original poster asked "why" regarding the assertion. Your response was akin to saying "because I said so."

I couldn't care less about license plates; I think that people should be able to put whatever they want on them (see my suggestions above that will never happen).

But I fail to see why these would be an establishment clause issue.

Let's say that, in addition to the plates given here, there was a Muslim equivalent, and a Jewish one. Would that be a problem? What if there was a non-believer one that wasn't just plain. What about then?

If the answer is that it isn't a problem then, what about the religions that don't have an offering? Why would it not be an establishment clause problem if every single religion, including Scientology and Enigmaticore's Church of the Holy Blowj.. er, you get my idea, aren't offered?

And if it is only an establishment clause issue if every possible religion is not offered as a choice, doesn't that make atheism the established religious choice of the state?

Pal2Pal said...

I see nothing wrong with the SC plate. You say:

The "I Believe" specialty plate is almost surely a state endorsement of Christianity that violates the Establishment Clause. (There's no array of specialty plates for different religions and no atheist plate. What would an atheist plate look like?)

How so? In Indiana you can get specialty plates that by your reasoning, the state is endorsing, many I could call offensive if I was inclined to be looking for B.S. like that. Like you said, people select a vanity plate, not the State selecting it for you. What is so different about saying "I am a Christian" and saying, "I'm in a Union," or "I'm a college grad," or "I'm an enviornmental wacko"? Or I want to advertise that I support or I'm a member of:

* American Legion
Department of Indiana
* D.A.R.E. Indiana Trust
* Fraternal Order of Police
* Freemasons
* Habitat For Humanity
* Indianapolis Colts
* Indianapolis Motor
Speedway Hall of Fame
* Indiana 4-H Foundation
* Indiana Arts Trust
* Indiana Association
of Pregnancy Centers
* Indiana Black Expo
* Indiana Boy Scouts Trust
* Indiana Breast Cancer
Awareness Trust
* Indiana Education Trust
* Indiana Environmental Trust
* Indiana FFA Trust
* Indiana Kids First Trust Fund
* Indiana Lions Trust Fund
* Indiana Native American Trust
* Indiana Nurses
* Indiana Professional
Firefighters
* Indiana Rotary
* Indiana Shrine Association
* Indiana State Police
* Indiana Volunteer
Firefighter's Association
* Juvenile Diabetes
Research Foundation
* International Union
of Operating Engineers
* Lewis and Clark
* Riley Hospital for Children
* Secure Indiana
* Special Olympics of Indiana
* To Your Health Plate
* Anderson University
* Ball State University
* Bethel College
* Butler University
* DePauw University
* Franklin College
* Grace College and Seminary
* Hanover College
* Huntington College
* Indiana Institute of Technology
* Indiana State University
* Indiana University
* Indiana University Purdue
University of Fort Wayne
* Indiana University Purdue
University of Indianapolis
* Indiana Wesleyan University
* Ivy Tech Community College
* Manchester College
* Marian College
* Purdue University
* Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
* St. Mary's College
* Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College
* Taylor University
* Tri-State University
* University of Evansville
* University of Indianapolis
* University of Notre Dame
* University of Saint Francis
* University of Southern Indiana
* Valparaiso University
* Vincennes University
* Wabash College
* Support Our Troops
* American Legion Department of Indiana
* Disabled American Veteran
* Ex-Prisoner of War
* Hoosier Veteran
* National Guard
* Pearl Harbor Survivors Association
* Purple Heart

Titan said...

Let me be a bit more explicit as to the establishment clause problem.

First, lets all agree that the state can send whatever message it wants on most issues. The state can be "prolife" and it doesn't have to provide equal "prochoice" time.

Religion, however, is different. The state is not allowed to be pro- one religion. I think it was Madison that described the establishment clause as a jurisdictional limit - the state should really not be taking any position. It should just leave the issue alone.

Most people recognize that the State has some involvement with license plate designs. For vanity plates (the letters and numbers themselves) you can do most anything you want as long as it's not obscene. For the design of the plate, however, the state tends to keep control.

People can suggest designs for the surrounding plates, and it looks like it is very easy for those designs to get accepted in most cases. (See the exhaustive list just posted.) Nonetheless, the state is keeping control over the process. It is preserving the right to say "yes" to this plate and "no" to this plate.

There are two ways to look at this. Either (1) the state thinks that the messages on its plates carry some sort of "stamp of state approval" or (2) the state thinks that the plates are a "government platform" that others can use for their own speech, but the state decides who can speak or who cannot. These two views are the same for our purposes. Notice that the 3rd possible view, that anyone can put what they want on the plate, is not on the table.

The establishment clause violation arises when the state accepts the pro-Christian plate but rejects the anti-Christian plate. Because the plates are either government speech (option 1) or a government forum (option 2) the state must be neutral on the issue of religion. The state is not obligated to create plates for every religion, but if a serious group requests a plate the state can't turn them down while letting the pro-Christian group do it.

If you're still skeptical, answer me this? Why did the state of South Carolina refuse to create an atheist (or Muslim, or Hindu) plate?

And if it is only an establishment clause issue if every possible religion is not offered as a choice, doesn't that make atheism the established religious choice of the state?

No. This is an old fallacy. Being "neutral" is not being "atheist". The government would be "establishing" atheism if it did the reverse; if the state created "I do not believe" plates and refused to create "I believe" plates. Maybe that might happen in Berkley, but actual establishment of atheism are very rare.

Bender said...

Louisiana's courts ruled the state could sell a "Choose Life" license plate while rejecting the proposal for "Pro-Choice" plate.

You know, I would have thought, and logic would dictate, and mere intellectual honest would have to admit, that a phrase with the word "choose" in it was about choice!

All these so-called, self-proclaimed "pro-choicers" deny and scream that they are not "pro-abortion," but if anyone dare suggest a choice other than abortion, somehow that is not pro-choice.

EnigmatiCore said...

I don't agree. The purest goal of atheism is not a world where people say they don't believe, but a world without religion (imagine!).

If we have the state act as if religion does not exist, that is perfectly in keeping with atheism. It is not perfectly in keeping with any other religious outlook.

There is no wonder to my eyes that atheists look at the Establishment clause in the Constitution in such a fashion that meshes so precisely with they way they would like to have the world be. Awfully convenient, actually.

EnigmatiCore said...

"I think it was Madison that described the establishment clause as a jurisdictional limit - the state should really not be taking any position. It should just leave the issue alone."

Leave aside, for the moment, that what Madison says isn't the end all on the subject; while certainly a driving force, he was not the only person who was involved, and each of them had their own outlook.

Having the state act as if religion doesn't exist is taking a position. And offering people choices for how they express themselves is not necessarily taking a position. Honestly, I find "In God We Trust" to be more problematic than opt-in "I Believe" plates. In fact, I fail to see how the latter even approaches an Establishment Clause issue. If the state made it cheaper for people to have "I Believe" plates than others, perhaps. But to have it be more expensive? Not at all.

Pal2Pal said...

titan: The government is not supposed to restrict the free exercise of religion and by not allowing the "I believe" plate they are restricting the free exercise of at least one type of religion. Providing that plate as a choice, not forcing anyone to pay extra for it or forcing anyone to display it, is not the state endorsing. It isn't a violation unless you believe that the government's role is to restrict, not allow the free exercise.

As to your other question, do we know they refuse Buddhists and atheists, etc.? I don't know what the criteria are, but I imagine that much has to do with numbers. If no one asks for one, and no one buys one, is the state obligated to still produce it? What if they just had the window without the cross and it said "I believe" leaving it to the onlooker to fill in the blank as to what is believed in?

After all, SC has a "Secular Humanists of the Low Country Plate" which to people of faith is pretty darn atheist.

Titan said...

Having the state act as if religion doesn't exist is taking a position.

I don't think the state has to act like "religion doesn't exist". I just don't want it to take sides. The state can still recognize holidays. The state can write loopholes in the law (like communion wine for minors). The state can decide that churches should count as non-profit organizations that get tax exemptions. The list goes on.

Imagine the following question in a debate.

Q: Mr. McCain, what should be the curriculum of the Arkansas state schools?

A: I'm not running for the Arkansas state school board, so I'm not going to take a position on that.

That is not a negative opinion about what should not be taught or what should be taught. It is a non-opinion.

And offering people choices for how they express themselves is not necessarily taking a position.

That is not what the state is doing. The state is saying, "Feel free to express yourself ON OUR LICENSE PLATES, but only in a pro-Christian way."

If the state made it cheaper for people to have "I Believe" plates than others, perhaps. But to have it be more expensive? Not at all.

The cost of a pro-Christian plate? $50. The cost of an anti-Christian plate? Infinity.

----

Two things:
- You didn't answer my question about why SC refused to atheist plate? (And please be more substantive than "they voted against it")

-Several circuit courts have agreed with me, and that was on non-religious plates. (Choose life but no pro-choice.) So even though you can't see how this would possibly be a violation, several federal judges can. So can Ann, since she said so in her post.

Titan said...

pal2pal:

Providing that plate as a choice, not forcing anyone to pay extra for it or forcing anyone to display it, is not the state endorsing.

I don't think it is. I don't think it becomes endorsement until they do it for the Christian group but then refuse to do it for the other group.

As to your other question, do we know they refuse Buddhists and atheists, etc.?

Because they don't like them! :-)

I don't know what the criteria are, but I imagine that much has to do with numbers. If no one asks for one, and no one buys one, is the state obligated to still produce it?

I mentioned this above, but if I remember correctly a group offered to place a minimum order so that the state would make money. (This is good litigation strategy anyway.) The state still refused.

SC has a "Secular Humanists of the Low Country Plate" which to people of faith is pretty darn atheist.

I agree, and I think that is one of the better defenses the state has. Now imagine that the state did NOT have that secular humanist plate and refused to create it. Should they have to?

EnigmatiCore said...

"That is not a negative opinion about what should not be taught or what should be taught"

Offering a slogan for people to pay for the right to adorn their vehicle is not an opinion on what should or should not be a person's religious belief.

Unless one wants to say, that is, that the absence of other options makes it an opinion. But if that opinion is just which are cost-viable, that is not an opinion of which one should hold.

"The cost of an anti-Christian plate?"

Read my first posts on this thread, because obviously you missed what I was saying.

"You didn't answer my question about why SC refused to atheist plate? "

I did not feel the need to, as the question did not expose any weakness in my first post on this thread, which has most of what I think about the subject.

But I'll spell it out again. I have no problem with them offering this as an option, think they should offer other options, and think it is a mistake both on practical and Constitutional grounds to say that no options of a religious nature can be offered or that every option must be offered. Although what I think should be done is to allow people to completely personalize their plates (within decency limits) and have the states charge for that right.

Titan said...

enig:

Well, I feel like you took some things of mine out of context and ducked some other things, but I'll respond anyway.

Unless one wants to say, that is, that the absence of other options makes it an opinion.

That is what I want to say.

But if that opinion is just which are cost-viable, that is not an opinion of which one should hold.

I accept that, but why should that cause me not to hold my opinion? I should accept your view only if the atheist plates are not cost viable. What evidence do you have that the atheist plates are not cost viable? I would agree with you if your statement was more than just a bold assertion.

In the lawsuit AU has filed, they assert that the pro-Christian plates are going to be sold at $4-$6, significantly below the price of other plates.

I did not feel the need to [answer my question on why there is no atheist plate], as the question did not expose any weakness in my first post on this thread

That's a nice pivot. I don't think there is anything wrong with your first post, and I agree that non cost-effective plates do not have to be made. (You accuse me of failure to read, but I've agreed with your first post twice now. And this makes 3.)

When I wrote that challenge (twice), I was responding to your later posts - the ones where you could not even conceive of an establishment clause violation. I do think answering my question causes a problem for that position.

So, I'll answer my own question. Why didn't the SC legislature create an atheist plate? People would be mad! How dare the legislature create such a plate! We believe in God in this state!

Doesn't that just flat out show that the plates the legislature creates are expressions of the state? The state is not passively letting people express their own opinions.

You have two choices here. The state is either (1) expressing its own pro-Christian opinion, or (2) letting certain (Christian) people express their opinions while preventing other (atheist) people from expressing their opinions in the exact same way.

That's not neutral.

Titan said...

Although what I think should be done is to allow people to completely personalize their plates (within decency limits) and have the states charge for that right.

By the way, I completely agree with this. However, the state is not doing that. They are accepting/rejecting plates from more than just "decency" limits, and it is going to get them into legal trouble.

Pal2Pal said...

titan: I'm not a lawyer, I'm a consumer, a plate buyer, if you will, and I'm trying to understand the argument from a consumer point of view. Truthfully, I would never think of a vanity plate as being anything but what the consumer wants to advertise, so I don't get the anti-argument.

Me, I have vanity plates in California, the same that I had in Indiana before moving here. I haven't looked at the CA list. My plate is simply PAL2PAL. The name of my web business, Pal2Pal Enterprises, which later also became the name of my blog. Advertising, if you will, or the ultimate vanity. :)

Back in 1950, when my parents were able to buy a 2nd car for my Mom after WWII gas rationing was over, my Dad bought vanity plates. It is the biggest fight I ever remember my parents having. You see, my Dad got MG 43 for his car, and for my Mom's brand new car, he got LG 42. She was livid. The LG was her initials, the 42 was her age. Something she absolutely did not want to advertise, especially since she had a 3 year old child. Back to the drawing board, the following year the plates were changed to LG 432 and MG 432, their initials and our house number.

I'm thinking that a state might get out of the organizational plate business. In SC, they have Confederate States plates, but they also have plates for a black activist fraternity and sorority, the Masons, etc. which seems to open the door to all kinds of plates that would be highly unacceptable to most people, like say KKK plates or white supremacy plates or even Black Liberation Theology plates. Draw the line, I guess, but "I believe" does seem to be pretty generic, except for the cross.

EnigmatiCore said...

"That is what I want to say"

I know you want to-- it isn't clear why what you want should hold sway.

"I accept that, but why should that cause me not to hold my opinion? I should accept your view only if the atheist plates are not cost viable. What evidence do you have that the atheist plates are not cost viable?"

My stance is that the best course of action is that the best approach would be for the state to design plates that could have stickers of a certain shape placed upon them, charge for these plates, and have the stickers be available from private companies who have to purchase a license to sell such stickers from the state; and only obscenities or tax delinquency et al would be reasons for license revocation. The state would make money selling the plates, the state would make money from the companies that would make the personalizations, the state would have a recognizable template for the plates, and people would be able to express themselves as best they want. And if there is sufficient demand, a company would provide whatever slogan or design you want.

And if there isn't sufficient demand or if it is too expensive? Too bad.

"That's a nice pivot. I don't think there is anything wrong with your first post, and I agree that non cost-effective plates do not have to be made."

It sure seemed like you were arguing with it. Or rather, you were arguing with my point that since the state isn't making anyone get it, that it is not the state pushing a religion. I understand your argument that since they are not offering anti-religion plates they are, but I don't find your argument persuasive or compelling. Further, I find that a doctrinaire insistence on a lack of religion in anything regarding the state to be exactly what atheism enshrined in the state would be like, and I object to that.

"You have two choices here. The state is either (1) expressing its own pro-Christian opinion, or (2) letting certain (Christian) people express their opinions while preventing other (atheist) people from expressing their opinions in the exact same way."

I reject that I have two choices here. Here is a third-- I think that the SC approach is wrong but not unconstitutional. I would like to have it changed, but if it was my state I would be fighting to get more options, not remove the one given.

Titan said...

Pal2Pal:

Let me try this hypothetical dialog. It might help explain my point.

A Christian and an atheist walk into the DMV to get their new plates. (Note that these are not vanity plates, where they pick the letters. these are the metal plates themselves.) They walk up to the Clerk.

Clerk: How can I help you?

Christian: I see you have a pro-Christian plate there!

Clerk: Yes, it's new.

Christian: Ooh. The ladies would get a kick out of that after church on Sunday school.

Clerk: Its $5 if you would like it

Christian: That's cheap!

Clerk: Yes. The reason we have specialty plates is to support the groups they represent. The specialty plates cost more because a donation is made to the group behind the plate. The government didn't feel comfortable doing that here because of the church/state issues, so the plate is dirt cheap.

Christian: I'll take it.

Atheist: Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing. Do you have an atheist plate? My buddies in the science department would love it!

Clerk: Sorry, no.

Atheist: That's too bad. I would be willing to pay for one. Is it just a matter of demand?

Clerk: No, sir. The problem is that these messages go on our license plates. People might think that South Carolina supports atheism.

Atheist: So? You don't seem to mind if people think you support Christianity.

Clerk: Well, sir, you need to understand that atheism is revolting to the people of South Carolina. It's OK if people want to be Christian, and we don't mind encouraging that, but there's no way we're going to support a vile belief like yours.


See the problem? Is that really being neutral? Isn't the state saying this religion is OK and this one is not? Isn't that exactly what's going on here?

Maybe you think there is some factual difference between this situation and the real one, but people like enigmaticor seem to think that there is nothing bad happening in my hypothetical.

Titan said...

EnigmatiCore:

My stance is that the best course of action is that the best approach would be for the state to design plates that could have stickers of a certain shape placed upon them, charge for these plates, and have the stickers be available from private companies who have to purchase a license to sell such stickers from the state

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. That stance is fine, I have no problem with it, but it is not what is going on in SC. I keep trying to explain why SC is violating the law, but you keep bringing up other situations or not responding to my points.

Further, I find that a doctrinaire insistence on a lack of religion in anything regarding the state to be exactly what atheism enshrined in the state would be like, and I object to that.

I think official "atheism" would include taxing churches, closing all religious loopholes in the law, rejecting doctrine like confidentiality between confessor and priest, etc.

My car says nothing about religion. When I honk the horn, the hallelujah chorus doesn't play. It's just some secular "honk".

My car must be atheist.

I think there is a real difference between not addressing an issue and taking a negative stand on an issue. You don't. Beyond that, I don't think we have anything else to say to each other on this issue.

I said "You have two choices here. The state is either (1) expressing its own pro-Christian opinion, or (2) letting certain (Christian) people express their opinions while preventing other (atheist) people from expressing their opinions in the exact same way."

And you responded I reject that I have two choices here. Here is a third-- I think that the SC approach is wrong but not unconstitutional.

That is not really a third option.

I was clearly trying to answer the classic question in every state speech/endorsement case. IS THE GOVERNMENT SPEAKING?

There are really only three logical choices here:

1) The government itself is speaking.

2) The government is allowing others to speak in a space the government provides, but the government is choosing who can speak and what they can say. The law normally considers this akin to government speech.

3) The government is letting people speak on their own, it is just providing the forum without really policing it. (Other than, say, for obscenity).

I'm trying to figure out if South Carolina is "speaking" the pro-Christian message. If they are, then they are in trouble. Among those three options, which would you choose? It has to be (1) or (2), doesn't it?

If so, then South Carolina is sending a pro-Christian message, and under established law they are in trouble.

Beth said...

Bender, if you were being intellectually honest you'd admit that the "choose life" argument means "don't choose abortion." Pro-choice means exactly what it says, that women should make their own choice. No abortion rights activists are running around trying to stop women from delivering babies. I've never seen a cordon of NARAL members blocking women from the entrance to the maternity ward.

Beth said...

But you might also consider the alternative of "SPINOZA."

Theo, in these times of the Patriot Act and FISA and whatnot, I'm not sure anyone should be throwing Spinoza out there where it can be misinterpreted.

In 1797, when Coleridge and the Wordsworths spent their days lazing around outdoors discussing philosophy, they were nearly arrested after an informer sent to find out if they were French spies overheard them refer to "Spy Nosy." (I first encountered that story in a grad seminar on the Romantics; googling confirms it in "A New History of Western Philosophy" by Kenny and Kenny.)

Titan said...

Beth, I didn't read Bender's full comment earlier because I thought I saw where he was going. I got it backwards!

I thought he was making fun of the anti-abortion side for saying "choose life" when they want to take away the right to choose.

"Choose life, because if you don't your doctor is facing 15 to 20."

EnigmatiCore said...

"I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. That stance is fine, I have no problem with it, but it is not what is going on in SC. I keep trying to explain why SC is violating the law, but you keep bringing up other situations or not responding to my points."

I have responded to your points, albeit in a manner you find unsatisfactory, which is why we will have to disagree. Simply put, I do not agree with you that what SC is doing is unconstitutional.

I find it similar to bans on nativity scenes and other such inoccuous displays. Either every religion supposedly has to be displayed, or none can; the result is that only the atheistic view of absence of religion gets state sanction. I find that the application of the Establishment clause that many, especially of the liberal political leaning, espouse is nothing but the proactive establishment by the state of atheism.

"I think official "atheism" would include taxing churches"

Probably. Generally you find the support for this to be very high among the same people who fight things like what is going on in SC and who fight Christmas displays or graduation invocations. I do not think that is coincidental. I do, however, find it very convenient that these advocates find the only religious outlook that is constitutionally acceptable to be voiced by the 'state' is their own.

Titan said...

I find that the [atheistic absence of religion] application of the Establishment clause that many, especially of the liberal political leaning, espouse is nothing but the proactive establishment by the state of atheism.

I think you agree that South Carolina is suggesting that being Christian is OK while being atheist is not. However, you think South Carolina would be establishing atheism if they were NOT allowed to do this. That's ass-backwards.

I refer you back to my "atheist car" example, and otherwise leave it there.

EnigmatiCore said...

"I think you agree that South Carolina is suggesting that being Christian is OK while being atheist is not."

I don't know why you would think I agree with that. I don't.

I think SC is suggesting that it is ok for you to spend some additional money to them to have "I believe" with an emblem on your license plate. I think that SC has other types of vanity plates available. They simply haven't offered the kind you want. But I don't think it is compelling to say they must offer every option, or even most options.

You can still express yourself. Hell, you can do so almost in the same place-- there are these nifty things called "bumper stickers". Not the same, but you aren't trying to express yourself, really. You are trying to prevent others from being able to through something offered by the state.

EnigmatiCore said...

And to avoid confusion-- I think you think that is what SC is doing.

I think SC is doing something much more primal. They are offering the I Believe plates because most of their constituents are evangelical Christians and it will get them votes to do so. They are not offering a "I don't" plate because they rightly saw that as an attempt to poke a stick in the eye of their constituents and to try to make political hay and get the "I Believe" plates removed.

I would be much more sympathetic to an effort to get a whole bunch more options added (again, my proposal). But I am tired of these efforts to try to stomp out religious expression in public life. It is disingenuous, and as I have asserted above, it strikes me as an attempt to codify one particular religion- atheism.

Titan said...

They are offering the I Believe plates because most of their constituents are evangelical Christians and it will get them votes to do so. They are not offering a "I don't" plate because they rightly saw that as an attempt to poke a stick in the eye of their constituents and to try to make political hay and get the "I Believe" plates removed.

When the Christians want it, the legislature is happy to oblige. When the atheists want it, they must want it so they can "poke a stick in the eye" of everyone else.

Couldn't they want it for the same reason as the Christians? To express their beliefs?

Conversely, aren't the Christians trying to "stick it in the atheist's eye"? (Why is the Lt. Gov. paying for all the plates out of his personal pocket?) No group lobbied the legislature for these plates, the legislature came up with the plates on its own as a political stunt.

I am tired of these efforts to try to stomp out religious expression in public life.

I am tired of people saying that atheists are trying to stop religion out of "public life". I want it out of government. People can still have all the public bumper stickers they want. They can have TV shows and carry signs in parks. They can make it as public as they want, just leave government out of it.

You know, most of the cases that atheists rely on nowadays came about when Protestants fought Catholics. When the schools used to teach the Protestant 10 commandments (and not the Catholic 10 commandments) the Catholics made them stop.

You would be upset too, if the government was endorsing foot washing or some practice you opposed. (The South Carolina schools have engaged in foot washing, by the way.) Instead, the Christians have retreated to a generic semi-Protestant stance that allows them to forgive their differences until they triumph over the infidels.

EnigmatiCore said...

"Couldn't they want it for the same reason as the Christians? To express their beliefs?"

If we lived in a vacuum, then it could be.

But we don't, and I don't believe for a second that this is their intent.

Do you?

Titan said...

I think the atheists want the same rights, and they were incensed when they saw this because they knew they would never get the same privilege. The idea of the legislature creating an "I do NOT believe" plate is laughable. But why? There are more atheists than Jews in this country, and several states have Jewish plates.

So do you think the legislature was just responding to the needs of their constituents? ('Cause their constituents need a lawsuit.) Or do you think the legislature came up with this as part of a cynical ploy to paint themselves as defenders of the faith? Wasn't the legislature trying to stick one in the atheists' eye?

Pal2Pal said...

When the Christians want it, the legislature is happy to oblige. When the atheists want it, they must want it so they can "poke a stick in the eye" of everyone else.

The atheists get what they want every day simply by preventing the Christians from expressing what they want. Isn't that the point? Absence of religious expression is atheism. The State, by going along with that position is supporting atheism while those who say "I believe" are prevented their right to free expression.

And I don't believe it is to get more votes, it is to get more money. It is all in the numbers. A heck of a lot more SC residents are apt to buy the I Believe plates than an I Don't Believe in Anything plate. A nice way to increase those gov't coffers.

EnigmatiCore said...

"So do you think the legislature was just responding to the needs of their constituents?"

Needs? No, wants.

And I think that is ok. It is only if they were trying to deny the rights of others that I would have a problem.

I don't think there is a constitutional right to every single possible vanity license plate background. Even though I think it would be great if non-obscene options were all offered.

Titan said...

Pal2Pal

The atheists get what they want every day simply by preventing the Christians from expressing what they want. Isn't that the point?

No, it's not. The point is to be treated equally.

Name me one Christian person who is being censored (without reason) and I will join you in a pro bono case to defend them.

Absence of religious expression is atheism.

No, it's not. I'll point to my atheist car example for the third time in this thread.

Read the Constitution, which does not mention religion at all (except to ban it in certain places). Is the Constitution "atheist"? No. It's just concerned with other things.

YOU CAN BE AS RELIGIOUS AS YOU WANT. Why isn't that good enough? Why does the government have to officially join you in your piety. Why can't it just govern and leave this incendiary topic alone?

The State, by going along with that position is supporting atheism while those who say "I believe" are prevented their right to free expression.

What are you talking about? Those who say "I believe" can say it ALL THEY WANT. But that isn't enough. They also want their government-issued plates to say it. Furthermore, the plates cannot carry the opposite message.

How can you seriously say that those who want to say "I believe" are being censored when there IS an "I believe" plate and there is NOT an "I don't believe" plate.

EnigmatiCore said...

"The point is to be treated equally."

By having the only acceptable state issued anything be totally devoid of religious reference, which just happens to be the dream condition of atheism.

Pal2Pal said...

titan: I don't want to put words in your mouth, or to draw wrong conclusions, but it seems to me that you don't get it. The Constitution says the government shall make no law regarding the free exercise of religion. That assumes there is an exercise of religion. And religion at that time meant believing in God. You are arguing the state must not allow such a free exercise and must follow the anti-religion of there is no God, no religion except the religion of the state. The Marxist model, if you will.

My argument is that denying this plate under discussion is a restriction on the free exercise, and the remedy is to offer an "I don't believe in anything" plate, not a denial of the one proposed. They already do that with their Secular Humanist plate.

Titan said...

Pal2Pal

it seems to me that you don't get it. The Constitution says the government shall make no law regarding the free exercise of religion.

The free exercise of religion of people. PEOPLE are free to exercise their religion.

We're talking about whether the GOVERNMENT can "exercise" religion. This involves the Establishment Clause. The establishment clause says that the government cannot establish religion, so that does restrict the exercise of religion, if you're talking about the state government.

You are arguing the state must not allow such a free exercise and must follow the anti-religion of there is no God, no religion except the religion of the state.

I am not saying that at all. I think it would be tyranny for the state to not allow people to exercise their religion. I don't think the government should be in the business of "exercising" religion.

The government shouldn't be developing speech regulations. It should not "be in that business". It's not government's job. It should be off limits. That's free speech. I feel the exact same way about religion. Government should have nothing to do with it.

[The state] must follow the anti-religion of there is no God

That's the opposite of what I think, and I refer to my "atheist car" example for a 4th time.

enigmaticor

having the only acceptable state issued anything be totally devoid of religious reference [is] the dream condition of atheism.

I've pointed out many things that would be different if atheism were "established" as religion. Absence of religion is not "established" atheism, no matter how much you want it to be. Atheism involves a denial of religion. Imagine if the coins said "In God we do NOT trust".

Speaking of convenience, isn't it convenient that under your definition the state is establishing atheism if it is not allowed to be explicitly religious. So the state needs to be religious, otherwise it must be atheist.

There is a middle ground between endorsing religion and rejecting it.

Both

This is a complete argument from authority, but I point out that Ann said "The "I Believe" specialty plate is almost surely a state endorsement of Christianity that violates the Establishment Clause." So when both of you can't possibly see my point of view, think of that.

Also consider that several of these lawsuits have already been lost in the federal courts.

It's a Catch-22. Is the state the speaker (or moderator)? If so, then the state is endorsing religion. If not, then the plates are a "free speech zone" and the state can't prevent "I don't believe" plates without censoring free speech.

Pal2Pal said...

Well, titan, I obviously do not agree with you or Ann that offering the consumer a choice is a violation or state endorsement. Choice is the operative word and there are lots of choices from which to choose. The State isn't forcing anyone to choose this plate over some other. In fact, if anything, they charge more for this choice than a standard plate.

The problem comes when they limit the choice by denying this plate because some other group doesn't like it. When they agree with that position, then they are by default, endorsing the anti position.

Simon said...

Pal2Pal said...
"Absence of religious expression is atheism."

Doesn't that concede too much? It seems to me that atheism is a positive expression of faith - indeed, it takes an extraordinary act of faith (or possibly arogance and hubris, depending on how well-disposed one feels) to behold all we know and not only say "I don't know that there is a God" (agnosticism), but "there is not a God" (atheism). Isn't the absence of any endorsement by the state of a particular religious position more aptly termed - for good or ill - secularism?

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