Monday April 28, 2008

Let them believe

I believe Florida license plate

Ahh, Florida legislature, how we love thee. Just in the last year you’ve screwed us out of having our votes counted, debated what can hang from the back of a truck, and now this: the good folks in Tallahassee are considering the ‘I Believe’ license plate.

Now, this is an easy opportunity to engage in a little open Christian-bashing — and believe me, I’ll get into that in a second — but let’s consider the central argument against the plate. Sayeth Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida,
“[it] sends a message that Florida is essentially a Christian state” and, second, gives the “appearance that the state is endorsing a particular religious preference.”

Well no, it doesn’t do that. Florida has some 200 different specialty tags. Does anyone think the state legislature in any meaningful way “endorses” the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Florida Memorial University, or NASCAR? Of course not. What we have here is the highly dubious enterprise of the state raising revenue through its vehicle licensing arm. You can question the whole enterprise, but letting it go for the last 200 plates and then suddenly deciding that this one is somehow extra-contemptible is absurd. Of course there is no shortage of folks ready to do just that. But sorry, the state isn’t forcing anyone to get this plate or making it the default choice. And a quick glance at the list of current specialty tags makes it clear that yes, this plate will soon be followed by plates for a plethora of other religions, and maybe even one for us atheists (several folks have suggested a Flying Spaghetti Monster plate). The state’s policy has been clear: it’ll print a plate if it thinks more then a couple of dozen people are interested. No sane person would infer any sort of approval.

There are certain areas where the state should draw the line. I’m personally still horrified every time I see the “Choose Life” plate. Does one of the most agonizingly troubled moral debates of our time need to be reduced to a license plate? Should the Florida Transportation department be used as a revenue collection agency for assholes who harass pregnant women? Don’t I have a right not to be reminded of abortions of all things, when I drive down the road? By any reasonable, objective, standard this plate is a universe more offensive then some silly deceleration of faith.

Oh, about those Christians. Well, honestly: what can you say about folks who want to proclaim their religious belief through so tacky a means? Have you guys read the bible? You know it wants you to stone adulterers and gays to death, right? You’re cool with that. You know your precious pope is helping the cause of AIDS by opposing condom distribution in Sub-Saharan Africa, right? What, you don’t support those things? So, the bible is the word of God or is it not? Yeah… I believe there is a word for you: hypocrite. (That’d make a good license plate!)

As for the rest of us, let’s take a deep breath and go with it, as well as with the other religious plates that are sure to follow. The “endorsement” is non-existent, and remember that separation between church and state is a balance. It says that you trust in God on your money, after all.

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  1. wynwooder    Mon Apr 28, 09:03 AM #  

    i’d personalize it and write 54T4N. probably get pulled over a lot. no tailgating for me, that’s for sure.

  2. CLJ    Mon Apr 28, 09:12 AM #  

    Better yet, wynwooder; push for one of the specialty plates I’ve designed in response to Florida’s blatant plug for Christianity.

  3. joel    Mon Apr 28, 10:01 AM #  

    i normally don’t engage in blog arguments, but i have to believe that your christian bashing is rather weak. a thinking person can see through your quick synopsis of the bible.

  4. Mikhail    Mon Apr 28, 10:23 AM #  

    I’d like to see a plate with the Star of David, a Crescent Moon and every other religious symbol. All or none!!!

    Also, need an atheist tag made.

    Then we need to make another tag called “Choose Death” to counter the “Choose Life” tag!!!

    Seriously… Doesn’t the state have more important business to attend to? LIKE OUR DAMN SCHOOLS! (sorry for shouting).

  5. Mikhail    Mon Apr 28, 10:25 AM #  

    CLJ: Just took a look at your designs… Just one word to say about that… EXACTLY!

  6. adam    Mon Apr 28, 10:42 AM #  

    I think your argument is a little dodgy. There is no constitutional amendment separating school and state.

  7. whl    Mon Apr 28, 11:35 AM #  

    religion poisons everythinG!

  8. alesh    Mon Apr 28, 12:06 PM #  

    joel~ So many others have done this so well, I didn’t really want to dive in whole-hog — just enough so nobody accuses me of being pro-Christian. See Christopher Hitchens et. al.

    CLJ~ Sorry I didn’t link to your tag mockups. Yes, I think any significant group will get its tag sooner or later. Don’t see how that’s an argument against this one.

  9. Alex    Mon Apr 28, 01:06 PM #  

    Howard Simon, who is a lawyer and chooses his words carefully, says “it gives the appereance of endorsement”, not “endorses”. He’s right. The casual observer won’t believe the state endorses the Hurricanes because there isn’t and has never been a debate, history, perception, etc; of whether we should have an official sports team. You can’t say the same of religion. It looks close to an endorsement, hence appereance.

    The real endorsement will come when the Legislature declines contemplating other plates. It’s not coincidental that the first plate with religious overtones was the “Choose Life” and this is the second: these plates are used to curry favor among Christian voters. For any other plates to be created, the group or church in question would have to find a willing (read: politically suicidal) legislator to sponsor their — let’s say Islam— plate, plus demonstrate they can sell 30,000 of them. Good luck. I think Judaism has a chance. Outside of that, who else?

  10. Mikhail    Mon Apr 28, 01:11 PM #  

    I would by a “Pro Choice” tag as I’m sure many others would. That being said, I’m sure my car would be vandalized!

  11. alesh    Mon Apr 28, 01:22 PM #  


    “It gives the appearance” are classic weasel-words. You’re either breaking the law or you’re not — the apperance of anything is not against the law.

    I love the ACLU, but they’re not perfect.

    We’ll see what happens with other religions’ plates. I think the Jewish one will come next, some protestant denominations, and sooner or later they’ll be issuing them without a second thought. I can see Muslim and Buddhist plates not raising much of an eyebrow. Probably they’ll stop at Wicca, which our society still seems to have some sort of major problem with.

  12. adam    Mon Apr 28, 01:40 PM #  

    FSM would sell 30,000,0000 plates!

  13. Biscayne Bystander    Mon Apr 28, 03:25 PM #  

    Purveyors of Christian idolatry would love to outfit Benedict XVI’s Popemobile with this above a set of Truck Nutz. Not only would the Pope look bad ass, the merchandising revenue alone would cover the rising cost of molestation settlements.

  14. TheLiz    Mon Apr 28, 03:38 PM #  

    I have a few things I wanted to point out.
    1. Howard Simon is pretty cool.
    2. I do believe that these Christian and Choose Life tags do call one to question whether this is a violation of the separation of church and state (FYI, duder, up there, the Dept of Education is supported by tax dollars, it’s part of the “State” part, so there should be a separation there… this is what America is all about, Pilgrims, remember?). I think that if you buy a license plate that supports sea turtles, you’re not pissing me off, but the truth is that I don’t really see why you need to advertise your faith. Let’s all keep it to ourselves. It’s frigging personal, not the stuff bumper stickers are made of. Anyway, the State can just as well avoid any church/state issues by just not producing this type of controversial propaganda.
    3. I wholeheartedly am offended by the Choose Life tags, and every time I see a car with one on it, I sort of want to piss on their hood, and I fantasize about their children becoming 15 year old pregnant homosexuals. I hate these people with all of my soul. They are bad people, in my book.
    4. The Catholic Church sucks, mostly. I grew up Catholic, I studied religion, so I can say this. The condom thing is true, the Vatican doesn’t distribute condoms to sub-Saharan Africa, HOWEVER (!!), the Church does give loads, tons, bunches of assistance in manpower and money to those with AIDS in Africa, I believe they give more than any other country or organization (not 100% sure). So, I mean, if we wanted to give out condoms, the Church wouldn’t stop us, but we’d have to actually care about Africa, as a nation, as a world first. We’d actually have to do what the Church in doing there in order to have any say.

  15. squathole    Mon Apr 28, 03:52 PM #  

    Say — are prisoners the ones who make license plates? That fact would put this whole debate in cheerful perspective.

    TheLiz: Instead of handing out condoms in Africa, maybe the Church should give out Choose Life license plates.

  16. Alex    Mon Apr 28, 03:54 PM #  

    Protestants are Christian. I don’t see why they’ll want a different plate.

    Find a Florida legislator willing to sponsor a Muslim plate (or 30,000 Florida Budhists willing to buy one) and we’ll talk.

    “Weasel words”? Look no farther than “against the law”. There’s no “law” to be “against” or “break” here. If Simon were talking about a constitutional challenge (he’s not) it wouldn’t be anything criminal. It’s just a new law or decision conflicting with established interpretations of the Constitution. In fact, the plate in question would be “with the law” so to speak, since it would have been created by a legislative bill.

    Appearance to observers at-large is a big part of constitutional challenges like this one. Only mind-readers could tell for sure whether the Legislature and by extension the State wanted to endorse a particular religion or not. So that’s not the point. The point is whether by their actions they end up favoring one religion in detriment of the others because the net effect of having a zillion plates with Christian crosses on the streets would be akin to proclaming Florida a Christian state. I get why a semi-libertarian would not like the ACLU going into that territory. But how do you prove absolute intent on an equal protection case like this one? How do you prove legislators want to win Christian votes and avoid Muslim associations?

  17. alesh    Mon Apr 28, 07:51 PM #  


    Do you mind if I respond to your list in reverse order?

    4. As a technical point, it’s not just that the church doesn’t distribute condoms, is it? They condemn the distribution of condoms. Anyone who takes that [inexpensive] [EFFECTIVE] step is violating the church’s commandments. Hence, among much else, GWB’s insistance that no US aid involve condom distribution. Of course the church does lots of good works, too. How they come out on the balance is so difficult to work out, since almost no one is really impartial. I will only say that I think that Hitchens and Dawkins go a little too far in the negative direction.

    3. Agreed. I actually find pro-life to be a slightly more respectable position then some of the other stuff (like anti-gay rights and the condom distribution thing) for technical reasons. But even if someone is pro-life, allowing that belief to consume so much of their being that they want to display it on their license plate strikes me as somewhat less then sane.

    2. If I understand you (and Alex) correctly, what you’re saying is “the state could just avoid any sort of controversy and not do this.” That’s true, but to me it’s like telling Carlos Miller to avoid controversy and not photograph cops. Look; in a fucked-up way, elected officials are supposed to do what their constituents want. They’re given certain boundaries, e.g. the US Constitution. They should do what they feel is right, so long as it doesn’t violate the Constitution. This is not the same thing as saying “They should do what they feel is right, so long as it doesn’t create the appearance/perception of violating the Constitution.” As banal as this case is, can you see how the latter is NOT the standard we’d want to apply? (BTW, I missed where the Dept. of Education got into the argument?)

    1. Howard Simon is no doubt cool. Hey, I like the ACLU, and it’s dude’s job to make the case against this, ultimately idiotic, plate. More power to him.


    Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, Pentecostals … I need a Venn Diagram. “Another major group of Jesus-worshipers” is what I meant… is there such a thing? What’ver, you got the drift. Pardon my ignorance.

    I got the distinct impression that Simon was trying to create the perception of unconstitutionality. You not?

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here: “The point is whether by their actions [legislators] end up favoring one religion in detriment of the others . . .”

    I guess to me, this plate is allowing folks to show their religion. I would consider any other interpretation to be unreasonable. I see it as the equivalent of allowing someone to wear a cross (except ultra-tacky). Of course if other religious plates get shot down, the situation is different. Maybe they should roll out three or four different religious plates all at the same time?

    You raise a good point in that that this is pandering to a particular religious community. To me, that indicates that it’s a symptom of a larger problem the rampant religiosity of our culture. Maybe we should all go read The God Delusion and give copies to our religious friends, and take a step in the right direction that way.

  18. alex    Mon Apr 28, 08:33 PM #  

    Agree pretty much, except: I don’t think the state should avoid controversy for the sake of avoiding controversy. I think they should do it to spare all of us the cost of litigation.

    Yes, I think Simon was “trying to create the perception of unconstitutionality” but stopping just short of it. He knows it’s not until some other group gets denied.

    Agree with your larger point of the rampant religiosity of our culture. Just having come back from Spain, a much more observant country AND where there is not establishment clause and yet, they are so vigilant about mixing religion and politics. Interesting.

  19. Baby Jesus    Tue Apr 29, 10:07 AM #  

    I died for you jerks and this is the thanks I get. Let’s see if Howard Simon will listen to your confessions or if Science gives you such a cool pagan holiday like Christmas.

    You Philistines need to get your priorities straight. There are more serious problems going in Babylon than little silly plates showin’ me some love (albeit ugly).

    The real problem is cars… They are killing Big Momma Earth, and Papa Dios is very angry. He’s told me that he is going back to the old way of things. So prepare yourselves for cities on fire, floods, locust plagues, and soccer moms turning into salt….don’t say I didn’t warn you Sodomites.

    Salam Alaykum