Another Day, Another Dispute Over Religious Symbols

November 11, 2009

To hear some on the Religious Right tell it, atheists are always scouring the country for government-sponsored religious symbols — crosses, Ten Commandments monuments, and the like — that they can then use as grounds for a lawsuit. Atheists are Establishment Clause junkies, constantly in search of a litigation fix. It doesn’t matter how long these symbols have been around; even decades-old monuments are not safe from a legal challenge. Those darn atheists just can’t let things be and allow the religious to enjoy some quiet government support.

OK, guilty — at least in part.

In reality, however, on many occasions the religious are the ones eager to pick a fight. A good number of legal challenges arise out of recent attempts to obliterate the line dividing church and state. Some of the religious want government assistance to shove their beliefs in our face — and then dare us to do something about it.

Take the South Carolina "I believe" license plate controversy. The South Carolina General Assembly enacted a law in 2008 that provided for a special license plate with the phrase "I believe" and the image of a cross superimposed on a stained glass window. The motivation for making this plate available was plainly to promote Christianity. Indeed, in court the state attempted to defend the plate by claiming it was a permissible "accommodation" of Christians. What? Christians can’t drive unless they have the comfort of a government-sponsored Christian message affixed to their vehicle?

Not unexpectedly, the federal district court has ruled that this latest effort to circumvent the Establishment Clause must fail. In its decision in Summer v. Adams, the court observed that "the statute is clearly unconstitutional and defense of its implementation has embroiled the state in unnecessary and expensive litigation."

Maybe nonbelievers would not be quite as litigious if Christians and other religious stopped trying to provide opportunities for us to sue. There’s no need. We have plenty of targets already.