For years, the U.S. state of Vermont had been battling to prevent a man from displaying a verse from the Christian Bible on their license plates. However, after a federal appeals court ruled that religious messages should be permitted on license plates, the state has given up its fight. The case illustrates the often nuanced nature of the struggle between freedom of religion on one hand, and freedom from religion on the other.
Vermonter Shawn Byrne had been fighting for the right to have “JN36TN” displayed on his license plate. The alpha-numeric sequence refers to John 3:16, one of the most famous verses from the Christian holy book, and reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. The state had argued that the license plate was inappropriate since it constituted government endorsement of religion, but the court countered that the individual has the right to use license plates to express religious beliefs—even if they are government-issued.
The verse reflects a fundamental tenet of conservative Christianity—it is routinely cited in Christian Sunday school classes as pointing to the only way to avoid eternal torment in hell. According to the doctrine of atonement, God requires a blood sacrifice of some kind as payment for human imperfection—even though God himself knowingly created this imperfection. The Bronze Age Israelites were required to propitiate God by slaughtering animals in their own stead, Protestants believe, but this ritual became redundant when God became a human and had himself sacrificed to atone for human imperfection. Nevertheless, they maintain, blood must be drawn to appease God. According to the doctrine of grace, no good deed—no matter how noble or exceptional—will ever make up for human imperfection, and only the acceptance of this human blood-sacrifice will offer a pathway out of hell. Some Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians still practice sacrifice as a form of propitiation.
While this doctrine might seem bizarre and superstitious to many modern-day intellectuals, religious freedom advocates argue that the expression of the idea—despite its allusions and imagery—should be protected. Whether or not the present case reflects government endorsement of religion is a difficult question to answer. If a government approves the issuance of a license plate which is confirmed to be a reference to a particular religious belief, does this mean that the government endorses the belief, or does it simply mean that the government is allowing Byrne to express his own beliefs? Ultimately it may depend on the intent of the government and the practical consequences of its actions—namely, whether or not its actions pressure other individuals to adopt Byrne’s belief.
We welcome the thoughts and opinions of our interfaith ministers. Feel free to get ordained online for free and join our Facebook discussion forum or our ministers’ network to express your views. Should the government allow license plates to be issued if they advocate the beliefs of a particular theology?