Methodist minister launches lawsuit over ‘objectionable’ Oklahoma license plate

IN 2009 the American License Plate Collectors Association judged Oklahoma’s Native American rain god license plate the best in the US. It features the iconic image of Allen Houser’s iconic statue  which is currently located in Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum.


But one man – Methodist minister Keith Cressman, pastor at the St. Marks United Methodist Church in Bethany – felt that the plate was an affront to his Christian beliefs,  and launched a lawsuit demanding that he be given the right to have an alternative design on his vehicle.

He alleged violations of his rights to freedom of speech, due process, and the free exercise of religion under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. Alternatively, he sought to compel the state to provide him with specialty license plates at no additional cost.

And he won!

The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed an earlier district court ruling that tossed out Cressman’s suit, saying that Cressman had a point:

In sum, Mr Cressman has plausibly alleged that the image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message … In addition, he has plausibly alleged that he is compelled to speak because the image conveys a religious/ideological message. Covering up the image poses a threat of prosecution, and his only alternative to displaying the image is to pay additional fees for specialty license plates that do not contain the image.

The three-member court panel did not rule on the merits of the case, but in a 2-1 decision reversed the district court’s order dismissing Cressman’s complaint and sent the case back for further consideration.

Cressman’s lawyer, Nathan Kellum of the Memphis, Tennessee-based Center for Religious Expression, said
his client isn’t asking the state to get rid of the roughly 2.9 million license plates on the road that feature the image, only that his client be given another option to place on his vehicle.

He simply wants to avoid placing the tag with the objectionable image on his car. Whether that is through an alternative plate without an additional cost, or just some method in which he would not have to be a mobile billboard for the state’s message against his will.

Added that his client’s lawsuit is in no way a criticism of Native Americans or their rich history in Oklahoma.

It’s really the idea that he would have to communicate a religious belief that he doesn’t hold.

In this report, Cressman contended that the plate promotes polytheism as Indian culture involves the belief in many gods.

The “Sacred Rain Arrow” statue was created by American Indian sculptor Allan Houser, a Chiricahua Apache artist recognised as one of the foremost sculptors of the 20th Century. The statue was displayed at the Olympic Village during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

David Rettig, curator of collections for the Allan Houser estate in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who knew Houser for 20 years before the artist’s death in 1994, said:

The piece isn’t worshipping a rain god. It is, in a sense, an offering of prayer to the God. The idea this piece is worshipping some pagan god is pretty foreign to what he believed.

(The minister) is missing the point that it symbolizes Native American culture and history and I don’t think it’s making some kind of exclusive statement about religion or worship. It’s puzzling somebody could take that interpretation.

State Senator Clark Jolley sponsored the bill to create a new license plate five years ago to replace Oklahoma’s old tag that featured an Osage Nation shield that is also depicted on the state flag. Jolley also helped lead a panel to narrow the selection down to five finalists and said there wasn’t any thought given to the religious significance of the design.

I don’t think any of us had any thought that this was some kind of great statement of religious significance. I’m not an expert on Native American religious heritage. I just thought of a guy shooting an arrow into a cloud so that rain would fall.

The Friendly Atheist is sees a positive aspect to Cressman’s idiotic challenge:

This is good news for all of us.Frankly, while I have a hard time understanding how any rational person could consider this a promotion of an ideology (or religious belief), the ruling only serves to help us in the future.

If this image goes too far, then surely a cross or other religious symbol can’t be allowed on a license plate, either. A devout Christian may have done a huge favor to all of us who support church/state separation.

47 responses to “Methodist minister launches lawsuit over ‘objectionable’ Oklahoma license plate”

  1. Graham Martin-Royle says:

    I’m with the minister on this one. Let him have a choice, and then, when the fundies try to put a cross or other xtian symbol on licence plates, they won’t be able to force anyone to drive around showing said cross because people will be able to choose something else.

    Which is what Hemant said.

  2. Angela_K says:

    I seem to remember that the Europeans invaded the Americas and gave Bibles to those of the indigenous population who hadn’t already been slaughtered to steal their land. The Americans only seem to believe the Hollywood version of “History” – nothing happened until the white man arrived.

  3. AgentCormac says:

    FFS, there is no ‘message’ in the image! None. It’s just torturous, twisted, bewildering, absurd and confused logic as per usual from the persecuted god squad.

  4. barriejohn says:

    Does he refer to the first day of the week as Sunday, I wonder; or the first month of the year as January? Just asking.

  5. tony e says:

    If his is the ‘one true god’ why is he so obviously threatened by this ancient image?


  6. The Woggler says:

    Having won one victory, no doubt believing his god has answered his prayers, Cressman can run with his good fortune. How about asking for something bigger next time. World poverty would be a good one. Let’s see Cressman persuade his god to help him win that battle.

  7. sailor1031 says:

    The state should not be promoting anything through license plates. Thus letters promote literacy (and discriminate against cyrillic, arabic, hindi etc. etc) – ban them (especially in OK); numbers promote numeracy – ban them! A blank license plate for every vehicle. It’s the only fair way. Maybe then New Hampshire could finally get rid of “live free or die” from its plates?

  8. jay says:

    He has a point. Is this any different from having a famous statue of Jesus on a license plate?

  9. Trevor Blake says:

    Judges 1:19 says God cannot defeat those in iron charriots, so I confess I am confused by this ruling. Can God now defeat those in iron charriots, or since Pastor Cressman also has an iron chariot it’s more 50/50? Either way, since Muslims ban all sculptures now they can proceed with their lawsuits.

    Fortunately there are no men in prison to visit, no sick in the hospital to comfort, no hungry to feed and so Pastor Cressman can get on to the real priorities of his faith. Praise The Lord!

  10. MrB says:

    Wonderful! The US Constitution legislates against establishment of religion, not against establishment of Christianity. Oklahoma has no more business demanding its citizens bear the image of a Native American deity than of Jesus, or Cthulhu, or a Star of David.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why people who fight any establishment of Christianity on the one hand would ridicule someone who fights establishment of a minority religion on the other. Government should not be promoting ANY religions.

  11. barriejohn says:

    There is a whole range of more tasteful plates available for the more discerning believer (just frames, actually):

  12. L.Long says:

    Sorry AgentCormac but there is a clear message in the image. They are going to honor in some small way those awful stinkin savages!!!!! This is a gawd fearin Xtian nation, we don’t honor no stinkin pagan savages that we tried our best to wipe from the earth!!! It bad enough there are still some around!!!
    The part I find mysterious is who in that state would suggest such a thing in the 1st place, as it goes completely counter to their all out NOTHIN BUT Cheeses!!! bigotry.
    But then I may be a bit harsh, but looking at what they are trying to get taught in their schools I don’t think so.

  13. AgentCormac says:


    Over the years I have visited and stayed on several Native American reservations and I have witnessed first-hand how the people who live on them there are, to this day, still considered to be inferior to mainstream America, how they are still referred to by whites as ‘skins’ and how they and their customs are still held in contempt by, seemingly, the vast majority of Americans. So I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that any attempt to celebrate pre-Columbian culture, or even somehow concede that there was culture before we Europeans rolled in and tried our best to obliterate all things indigenous, would probably be seen as anathema to the likes Cressman (I have a mental image of Rod Steiger’s Chief Gillespie in the movie ‘In The Heat of The Night’).

    What I simply do not understand is how the feck does Cressman get a Court of Appeal to agree that there is a religious message in the Sacred Rain Arrow statue? Allan Houser was born in Oklahoma and, regardless of his ancestry, was one of the state’s most renowned 20th-century sculptors and painters. His work has been exhibited (the following is from Wikipedia) at ‘the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. and in numerous major museum collections throughout the North America, Europe, and Japan.’ He is, therefore, a man whose life and work should rightly be celebrated by the state he called home.

    So you aren’t wrong – if there is a message in all this it is that Cressman and his ilk cannot and will not celebrate anything that is outside of their blinkered view of the world or human history.

    No doubt Cressman is one of those who thinks Jesus walked the Earth with dinosaurs. If so, Jesus walked with Cressman,

  14. Matt+Westwood says:

    @AC: Stop insulting dinosaurs!

  15. L.Long says:

    I agree AC but the ‘stingin Indians’ is so negative that they don’t dare use it. So they are using the religious card. And since most probably agree then they are allowing it to proceed. But I also think that we should let it go. Then when these bigots try to get their crosses (symbols of torture and pain) or some such then we can use their own ruling against them.

  16. barriejohn says:

    MrB: Are you seriously suggesting that the representation of this statue is promoting a religion? Does this, perchance, also apply in the case of a telecommunications company that employs an image of Mercury? I think that we’re losing touch with reality here. I also think, though, that individuals should be free to object to symbols on grounds of conscience, however daft they might be; anything else smacks of fascism.

  17. Robster says:

    I want a dead bloke on a stick on my licence plate. The indian fellow is still alive with his bow and arrow when only dead deities belong on licence plates. Perhaps the Indian could commit suicide and be strung up on a torture device to equal that healthy image of the dead magic jew on his carefully constructed stake.

  18. barriejohn says:

    Marky Mark: We’ve already lolled at that one!

  19. barriejohn says:

    I saw a car just like this in New Milton last week. The driver was standing in the street preaching to himself and singing “sacred songs” in a very loud and completely tuneless voice. I knew Christians who did the same thing in years gone by, often using loudspeaking equipment, and always thought that they made us look naive and stupid, besides causing great annoyance, however noble their motives. There are far better ways to promote your religious faith, and I read recently that the Mormons are abandoning their “door-to-door” approach in favour of more modern means of communication. But you’ll still get the idiots claiming that because the Bible says that people are “saved” by “the foolishness of preaching” (mistranslation anyway – it should be “the message preached”) that that is the method that God himself has ordained!

  20. AgentCormac says:

    Good to see that UK tax payers aren’t having to see their money wasted on quite so many hospital chaplains these days.

  21. barriejohn says:

    The NSS highlights this story today:

    Interesting to see that the Baptist take on it reflects views expressed above!

  22. Broga says:

    “They may find themselves questioning activities going on and wish to have somebody to talk to so they can work out for themselves whether or not what they are being asked to do, or what changes are happening, are in contravention with their faith position or no faith position, as the case may be.”

    This is what one chaplain says he offers NHS staff. For a start I think chaplains are seen very much as an irrelevance and I think the chaplains themselves are often embarrassed by a lack of a practical role. A patient wants to see a doctor or a nurse who can tell them about the nature of their condition and the likely prognosis. The usual question is “Can I see the doctor?” and not “Can I see the chaplain?”,

    In the staff meetings, about which chaplains imagine themselves to be playing a part, they are completely lost in the plethora of medical terms in which these discussions inevitably take place. They struggle to make a worthwhile comment. They are also competing with the social worker. My wife is a retired doctor, as it happens.

    The “contravention of their faith position” is an interesting comment and perhaps reveals more then the chaplain intended. As the chaplain relies, I assume, on the God given word delivered to 2,000 year old societies and tribes what priority does he/she give this to the views in modern medicine: eg issues of euthanasia, abortion, contraception etc.

    The chaplains have to hunt for trade in hospitals, they are grateful when a patient accepts them and the chaplains know this. At close to £50,000 each p.a. they are an expensive irrelevance. They money could be better spent on medicine and not the shibboleths of ancient peoples and the fantasy souls for which they care.

  23. Daz says:

    AC & Broga

    Good article on the BBC’s reporting of the chaplains issue here: Link

  24. barriejohn says:

    Daz: The NSS made the same point, and, to be fair, the BBC article does quote Terry Sanderson.

    I can see that the presence of chaplains and “prayer rooms” in hospitals can be very beneficial for both patients and relatives, but when they represent specific faiths, and even denominations, you have to question whether public funding is apptopriate.

  25. […] Read Methodist minister launches lawsuit over ‘objectionable’ Oklahoma license plate […]

  26. AgentCormac says:


    Thanks for the link – interesting reading indeed. You do have to wonder what editors at beeb think they’re doing sometimes. They should be much better than this – but given their continuing support for Broga’s favourite slot, TFTD and Chris Evan’s nauseating Pause For The Day feature, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find them under representing the non-religious point of view and overplaying the ‘persecuted christian’ card.

  27. Daz says:


    Yeah, the author I linked was concerned more with the way Sanderson’s/the NSS’s input was portrayed, probably edited down to as, s/he puts it, “reducing their position to “Ugh! Religion!””

    My position would be that, certainly some sort of prayer room should be provided, but I see no reason why the public should pay for chaplains. Either fund ’em by charity or let families contact their own priest/vicar/imam/rabbi/voodoo-priest/whatever, if they feel they need a cleric.

  28. barriejohn says:

    Hodspitals could provide counsellors and “quiet rooms”, or something similar, and I would be all in favour. If Christians and Muslims want specific support then let them pay for it.

  29. Tom80 says:

    The chaplains have to hunt for trade in hospitals, they are grateful when a patient accepts them and the chaplains know this. At close to £50,000 each p.a. they are an expensive irrelevance

    Broga: Not all Chaplains are paid and neither do they hunt for trade. My relative (A Catholic Priest) has a large teaching hospital in his parish. He visits this when requested and once a week uses a “prayer room” to say mass for anyone who wishes to attend. The prayer/quiet room is used by any other faith or no faith who wishes to do so. This costs the hospital nothing and as far as he is concerned it is part of his parish ministry. The switchboard also has his number so he can be called in case a patient or relative urgently needs him.

    The interesting thing is that, on average, he gets two or three complaints a month from relatives of patients who want to know why he hasn’t visited the patient or taken them communion. When he explains that this is because the hospital is not allowed to tell him they have a catholic patient admitted (Data Protection act) most are really surprised as patients are asked their religion on admission, or so I am told.

    Surely this would be the best way for hospital chaplains to work with no cost to NHS. Patients or relatives could request the hospital to tell the local Vicar/Priest/Rabbi/Imman or whoever they are in hospital and they would like a visit. The Hospital could then do this. Money saved by NHS and patients happy.

  30. Broga says:

    @Daz: Good article. Thanks.

    @Tom80: I almost added to my comments, and in view of what you said I wish I had, that RC priests are the exception and wanted by RC patients. The RC patients used to treat them, and may still do, with a reverence absent from anything accorded to C.of E. vicars. I know an RC priest and whatever I think about his religious views I like him as a person and have learned that he will be hauled out day or night by his parishioners who say they need him. I agree with you.

  31. remigius says:

    Broga – ‘…he will be hauled out day or night by his parishioners who say they need him. I agree with you.’

    And why do they need him? Because he has spent his whole working life telling them they cannot cope without him, his church, and his book of faerie tales.

  32. barriejohn says:

    Remigius: I agree. Counsellors may be able to offer much needed support at times of stress and anxiety, but if they are peddling religious mumbo jumbo I wouldn’t want to encourage it. I see that there were “all-night prayer vigils” for Nelson Mandela last night. Why? This only benefits those who are taking part, and makes them feel as though they are actually doing something, when in actual fact they are powerless. Sometimes resignation is the healthiest frame of mind.

  33. AgentCormac says:

    I agree with many of the points made above. If people feel the need for religious succour when they are ill, and this can be provided without cost or inconvenience to the tax payer, then fair enough. That’s their call. But as remigius rightly points out, the need stems from the indoctrination to which these people have been subjected from birth. So the real problem lies at the other end of the patient’s life and what we should actually be focusing on is making it as difficult as humanly possible for priests, vicars, rabbis, imams, etc., etc., etc. to get anywhere near children until they are of an age when they can decide for themselves what is truth and what is fiction. If what they preach is based on incontrovertible fact, then surely no religious leader could object to children being kept away from the tenets of all faith until they were, for example, at the age when they can legally get married. After all, god would make sure that as a young adult each person would immediately see, recognise and embrace the truth. Wouldn’t they?

  34. AgentCormac says:

    Doh! That should have finished with ‘Wouldn’t he?’ (I want to add my voice to those asking for a return of the edit facility, Barry.)

  35. Daz says:

    I want to add my voice to those asking for a return of the edit facility, Barry.

    I ,em>also secnod teh ned four in edict faculty!1!

  36. AgentCormac says:

    Just to take this thread off in yet another direction, I see that our friend Eric Pickles is now proving to be as hopeless at managing fiscal affairs as he is at understanding the difference between reality and superstitious claptrap.

  37. Broga says:

    @remigius: Indeed, they have been indoctrinated. I know from my own boyhood hearing about RC school mates who had to go to Mass and who had been regularly threatened with hellfire. And I agree with Richard Dawkins that this is child abuse.

    The patients, particularly the elderly, have been rendered dependent on their priests and terrified of death. I hope, with some reason, that the widespread knowledge about the endemic paedophilia and the financial and other corruption in the RC Church is removing these victims from being in the thrall of priests.

  38. Broga says:

    @AgentCormac: Pickles: what fun. Made my day to see this smug ass come a cropper. Thanks.

  39. Daz says:

    I’m trying really hard to resist making jokes about pickles & pork pies…

    Oops, too late.

  40. Matt+Westwood says:

    @barriejohn: “Hospitals could provide counsellors and “quiet rooms”, or something similar, and I would be all in favour. If Christians and Muslims want specific support then let them pay for it.”

    When I was spending lots of time visiting the hospital over the past winter, I was made aware of just such a room. Didn’t go in there, but I was sorely tempted just for the sheer bloody-minded curiosity of it.

  41. AgentCormac says:

    Broga, Daz & barriejohn
    If only the idiot could try and Pickless. Boom! Boom!

    Beware! Remember this?’s-sentence-signals-a-new-and-dangerous-blasphemy-law-in-the-uk/

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