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.