S.C. lawmakers have religion on minds, in bills

Thursday, May 15, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Faith would have a high profile in the public square in South Carolina if three bills that are moving through the Legislature become law.

One would create license tags with “I Believe” in front of a cross; a second would make clear that prayers can be offered before public meetings and a third would allow set public displays of key legal foundation documents that would include the Ten Commandments.

The bills are beginning to raise questions about whether the state is taking a role in promoting faith.

“The South Carolina Legislature should not be in the business of telling people how or when to pray, whether to pray or to whom to pray,” said Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington.

The “faith tag” zipping through South Carolina's Legislature nearly became law in Florida, but it was dropped from a license-tag measure there at the last minute.

In South Carolina, Baptists pitched the idea to Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's chief of staff. State Sen. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree Democrat, got S.B. 1329 bill passed through the Senate in a couple of days without even having a public hearing or debate.

“It's a great idea,” McGill said on May 13, calling it an opportunity to express beliefs. “People don't have to buy them. But it affords them that opportunity. I welcome any religion tags.”

What about Wicca, commonly referred to as witchcraft? “Well, that's not what I consider to be a religion,” McGill said. And Buddhism? “I'd have to look at the individual situation. But I'm telling you, I firmly believe in this tag.”

The House Education and Public Works committee approved the “I Believe” measure today. The measure is expected to go to the House floor for debate next week.

In Florida, the tag would have raised money to help send children to faith-based schools regardless of denomination. “We weren't really looking to get into a debate about a cross or not a cross,” said Debbie Federick, a board member of Faith in Teaching, which pushed the Florida bill. “We don't really have a position on what's going on in South Carolina.”

While the Florida tag would have paid school costs, in South Carolina the $30 it would raise would go into the state's general fund. That may be needed if the state gets sued.

“It raises significant constitutional issues,” said Floyd Abrams, one of the nation's top First Amendment lawyers. A “serious constitutional argument can be made that the issuance by the state of license places with a religious affirmation on them violates the First Amendment,” he said.

South Carolina has already lost court challenges on a license tag. In 2004, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's ruling that abortion opponents' “Choose Life” tags were unconstitutional because they provided a forum for one group's views and not another's. The state ended up paying $157,810 to Planned Parenthood for legal bills.

Legal experts also have questioned including the Ten Commandments in “Foundations of American Law and Government” displays that would have, among other things, the Declaration of Independence; the Bill of Rights; the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I believe we have just as much solid legal advice on this in favor as we do in opposition to it,” Smith said.

Thomas Crocker, a constitutional law expert at the University of South Carolina School of Law, warned the Senate panel handling H.B. 3159 last month that if the measure were seen as a way of endorsing religion it would be unconstitutional. But supporters sometimes stumbled into the tricky ground of which version of the Ten Commandments would be used as they said they'd follow a careful path to make sure the displays didn't amount to a religious endorsement.

And on May 14, the House Judiciary Committee approved S.B. 638, which would clarify how public bodies can allow prayer before meetings using one of their members, a chaplain they elect or a religious leader “serving established religious congregations in the local community.”

That bill was sent to the House floor with no debate.

Bauer says has no qualms about expressions of faith heading closer to the governor's desk. “In my perspective, it would be freedom of speech,” he said.

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