Saturday, June 07, 2008

I Believe

With South Carolina set to offer "I Believe" license plates containing an image of a crucifix, might we want to concede that perhaps Justice Scalia was onto something in suggesting that nonsectarianism means monotheistic nosectarianism (as discussed here)? In defending these specialty plates, SC State Senator Lawrence Grooms (quoted in the NY Times) contended that such license plates are no different from the use of the motto "In God We Trust" on the currency. Indeed, everyone---including people who don't believe in a single (or any) God or if they do, don't trust Him---must use the currency, whereas only people who choose the "I Believe" plates need to do so. South Carolina offers a wide range of specialty plates (see full list here), including an "In God We Trust" plate and a "Sons of Confederate Veterans" plate, and makes it easy for organizations to order specialty plates. Thus, one plate is sponsored by the Secular Humanists of the Low Country, and includes the motto, "In Reason We Trust." (Note that the "I Believe" plate pictured above is from a failed effort to introduce them in Florida. The SC design is not yet available.)

Accordingly, it's plausible to defend the "I Believe" plates on the ground that South Carolina has created a forum for private speech, and that, given the diversity of plates, "I Believe" plates do not reflect government endorsement of religion. Were the Supreme Court writing on a blank slate, it might want to say that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment permits a state to include the "I Believe" plates among an assortment that includes other religious and nonreligious messages, but that the Free Speech Clause of the same First Amendment also permits the state to take a more strictly separationist view by excluding all religious messages. In other words, we might want to say that there is some policy space between what the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause respectively require. The Court has said something like this occasionally, and perhaps will clarify the law in this area in the pending
Summum case (which I've discussed here, here, here and here).

For now, though, I want to assume away all of the questions about when government restrictions on speech in a public setting convert otherwise private speech into government endorsement, and suppose a hypothetical variation designed to put Justice Scalia's view in the best possible light: Suppose that the federal government replaced "In God We Trust" on the one dollar bill with "I Believe," and replaced the (somewhat creepy) pyramid-and-eye Great Seal with a crucifix image. Surely
that would violate the Establishment Clause, even if "In God We Trust" does not. But how can explain this difference except as an application of Justice Scalia's view that government endorsement of generic monotheism is acceptable, while endorsement of any particular monotheistic sect is not?

One possibility, to which I referred in my FindLaw column last week, is that "In God We Trust" can be fit into the limited exception to the non-endorsement principle for "ceremonial deism," whereas the crucifix image cannot. But this strikes me as completely ad hoc. Or it strikes me as emphasizing the wrong aspects of the ceremonial deism exception. Here I would instead rely on a point made by Justice Breyer in his concurrence in the
Van Orden case: There is a difference between maintaining the staus quo with respect to religious imagery and making a change.

If license plates had contained crucifixes for over a century, then perhaps that would now be widely seen as de minimis, in the way that "In God We Trust" largely is. After all, no one seems to pay any attention at all to the fact that our official calendar reckons years from the birth of Jesus. If it seems implausible that a crucifix on the currency could ever be seen as anything other than impermissible government endorsement of religion, then perhaps we should rethink the acceptance of official generic monotheism as well.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Tam Ho said...

" . . . I want to . . . put Justice Scalia's view in the best possible light . . . ."

A few days in Cleveland have, understandably, turned you even more masochistic than usual.

egarber said...

Suppose a plate read:

"Islam is evil"

If this is a public forum, any effort to disapprove of this message under TPM rules would likely be content-based, no? Is there any valid compelling state interest that would pass muster? Or if it's declared to be a public forum, must the state offer this message along with all others?

Or is there a way for the state to pull back and institute a rule only accepting positive advocacy -- i.e., you can only wave your flag; you can't bash others? Even here though, that's a content-based call, I think.

Len said...

While stability is often a good thing I'm not comfortable with Justice Breyer's formulation of it in Van Orden. He implies that 40 years of open and notorious display of the monument gave ample time for anyone to raise a Constitutional complaint. Thus, my Constitutional rights can be adversely possessed because my ancestors did not object. Perhaps that's no different, only more honest, than Justice Scalia's "long history and tradition" formulation which I reject because of my view of the Constitution as a living document.
Three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each have their own version of the Ten Commandments. If in each public display of the Ten Commandments case it was the Christian version, would that change your view that it is a specific monotheistic sect trying to establish itself and not monotheism in general?
With the license plates, the state should lose on both viewpoint discrimination and Establishment grounds. It is not just content-based, only one viewpoint is allowed. Look at the Florida sample. Those are clearly Christian symbols. The state created a designated public forum and allows only the message "I believe in the Christian God". Not Jewish, not Islam, not Pastafarian. All other voices are prohibited from the forum.
The state might argue that you can have any one of the many special tags that we offer, and "I Believe" is only small message out of many you can have. But the state should lose because when it allows motorists to pick a message of support for any college or university in the state it admits that when several choices in a category are available, it is important to include them all so as not to appear to favor one. Why doesn't the state offer only University of SC plates? Why do smaller Newberry and Morris Colleges get a voice?
The state chose not to establish the popular University of SC as the only institute a motorist can support. It opened the forum to all schools, public and private. Likewise, it cannot choose only the popular Christianity as the only religion a motorist can support. Once religious viewpoints are invited into this designated public forum all religious viewpoints in the state must be allowed. Otherwise the state establishes Christianity as its preferred religion.

Unknown said...

Regarding the Findlaw column on Justice Scalia's view of the Establishment Clause, I think it is remarkable that scholars rarely (if ever) reference what I believe is THE most telling bit of history: The very first act of the government of the United States.

Statute number 1 pertains to the oath act, required under Article VI. In first proposing an oath, Congress used two references to God. Both were affirmatively removed!

Sobek said...

"Or is there a way for the state to pull back and institute a rule only accepting positive advocacy -- i.e., you can only wave your flag; you can't bash others?"

What if a Muslim wants a license plate with the shahada -- there is no god but Allah? That can be read as both positive advocacy and bashing others. Some people (not myself) see any endorsement of religion or defense thereof as inherently bashing others.

Tantallonblog said...

'Scuse...Just noticed. That may be a cross on that licence plate, not a crucifix. nbd.

But even that difference represents a the state.

So,how does the state-selected choice of the symbol affect the "freedom" of speech of the plate owner?

Shouldn't everyone have his choice of what to put on plate?

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