TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Although like almost every other legislature in the Union Florida’s is beset by a monumental budget crisis and dozens of other issues demanding immediate, decisive attention, lawmakers instead have chosen to prove their mettle by focusing time, attention and yes, state funds on a matter guaranteed to put at ease the minds of the suffering populace: license plates.
A bill before the state Senate would create two new optional license plates for Christian motorists in the state. One would depict a crucified Jesus complete with a crown of thorns — though mercifully sans evidence of nails or scourging. A kinder, gentler version would be emblazoned with a stained-glass window, a cross and the words “I believe.”
Washington, DC-based civil liberties watchdog Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the Senate to reject the bill and warned a lawsuit may result if SB 642 becomes law.
“These plates clearly violate the Constitution and basic fairness,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, himself a minister. “It’s wrong for the legislature to favor one faith over others. If this bill passes, it is almost certain to provoke a lawsuit.
“I am frankly shocked that any legislator would think these plates are constitutionally acceptable,” Lynn continued. “It is deeply offensive when officials play political games with the sacred symbols of any faith.”
Americans United blocked issuance of an “I believe” plate in South Carolina last year when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the plate and indicated AU would prevail in its lawsuit.
In its letter to the Florida Senate, Americans United asserted that state blessing for two license plates prominently displaying the symbols and images of the majority religion “would offend not only Floridians who are members of minority faiths, but also Christians who believe it is inappropriate for the state to issue these kinds of license plates because they co-opt the religious symbols, images, and beliefs of their faith for the state’s benefit, thereby demeaning those sacred images.”
Florida senators were expected to vote on the plates as early as Monday.