Letters to the Editor

License Plates out of Control

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Friday in The (Columbia) State.

About the only thing more ridiculous than the fact that our legislature would pass a law to create license tags with a cross-emblazoned stained-glass window and the words "I Believe" was the idea that such a law could survive a court challenge; after all, the courts had deemed it unconstitutional for the legislature to create "Choose Life" tags without also creating abortion-rights tags.

And about the only thing more pathetic than the fact that anyone would actually spend time and energy filing a lawsuit to stop the plates from being issued was the fact that the state would fight that lawsuit. So after the opponents did what we all knew they'd do and the federal court did what we all knew it would do, it's welcome news that a peace of sorts seems to have been reached.

We don't say this because Attorney General Henry McMaster has declared the proposed new license plates constitutional; he has no credibility on this topic, having defended the tags we all knew a federal court would strike down. Rather, it's because unlike the earlier plates that were specifically authorized by an act of the legislature, the new tags would be produced under a law that allows virtually any nonprofit to have plates printed up with its name, as long as it puts up enough money to guarantee the state will break even. We also are encouraged because the people who sued over the first tags have acknowledged that they have no legitimate reason to be upset about the new tags, since any group religious or not could use the same process.

Encouraged, but still unsettled.

What's unsettling is not the idea that the specialty license plate on the car in front of us might say "IBelieve.com," or that the website will propagate a particular brand of Christianity that doesn't even sit well with all Christians. What's unsettling is the fact that our state treats license plates like bumper stickers, allowing virtually anyone to put virtually any message on them. This process, which is so out of hand that the Department of Motor Vehicles' license plate gallery now features 127 different specialty plates, makes it so difficult to know just what is and isn't an S.C. license plate that it undermines one of the primary purposes for having license plates to begin with: to make it easy for police to quickly identify vehicle owners.

More unsettling still is the part of the process that's less visible to the motorists: The state allows these groups to set the price for their specialty tags and collect a check from the government for the difference between the cost to the state and the cost to the purchasers. No need to hire a marketing company to do your fundraising or do it yourself. The state government will do it for you. It's a clear case of the government doing things that should be done by the private sector, and nary a peep of dissent from those politicians who constantly clamor for the government to turn its legitimate duties over to the private sector.

These ought to be simple concepts: License plates are designed to help police identify vehicles, and just like driver's licenses, they need to be standardized so as to not interfere with that process; if you want to advertise your allegiances or affiliations or beliefs, buy a bumper sticker. And government should collect money for public purposes, not for private organizations; if you want to raise money for your nonprofit, do it yourself. We believe those two changes would go a long way toward avoiding pointless culture wars and court costs.