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Texas approves controversial license plate featuring crosses

December 12, 2011 |  1:16 pm

Calvary Hills license plate with crosses

Texas license plates are again drawing national scrutiny.

Last week, the board of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles voted to approve the "Calvary Hill" specialty license plate that reads "One State Under God" and features three crosses.

Motorists who choose to buy the plate pay a surcharge, which is divided between the state and the sponsoring group -- in the case of Calvary Hill, a Christian-based youth anti-gang ministry in the east Texas city of Nacogdoches.

The board, all appointees of Gov. Rick Perry, voted 4 to 3 to approve the plate the same week he unveiled a television ad in Iowa in which he vowed to end President Obama's "attacks on religion."

The Republican presidential hopeful has avoided commenting about the Calvary Hill plate, saying the DMV board acted alone.

Critics said the governor should condemn the plate as religious discrimination.

“Texas is getting a reputation for being unwelcoming to all faiths. The decision by the DMV simply reemphasizes that problem," Kathy Miller, president of the liberal Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based watchdog group, told The Times. "This is the danger of government playing favorites with faith: It can lead to folks having their faith questioned or diminished by government bodies, and that’s wrong.”

Miller, whose group released a statement opposing the plates, called on the DMV board to reconsider its decision, and on the state Legislature to clarify what plate designs are permissible.

“This isn’t a question of free speech; this is a question of government endorsing particular symbols, in this case religious symbols, in a way that diminishes religious freedom,” Miller said.

But Jonathan Saenz, the director of legislative affairs for the Austin offices of the conservative Liberty Institute, blogged in support of the plates, saying critics are attacking Christians.

“People have this view that Christians should be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to exercising their 1st Amendment rights,” Saenz told The Times, adding that when it comes to purchasing the plates, "This is a private decision and private speech.”

“It’s ludicrous for anyone to suggest that because someone puts a license plate on their car, that is endorsing religion,” he said, adding that the design is “about as mainstream Texan and American as you can get.”

Saenz noted that Texas has already issued several specialty license plates featuring crosses, and that in 2007, the Legislature inserted "One State Under God" into the pledge to the Texas flag.

The Calvary Hill plate is among about 100 specialty license plates the DMV board has approved since the program's inception two years ago, a spokeswoman said.

Last week, the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state in federal court for rejecting its proposed specialty plate featuring a Confederate flag. Before the November vote on that plate, Perry spoke out against it, as did many prominent Texas officials and the NAACP.

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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

Image: Last week, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board voted to approve the Calvary Hill specialty license plate. Credit: MyPlates

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