Court Grants Pastor Right to Sue Oklahoma Over Native American License Plate

An Oklahoma pastor has been given approval by a federal appeals court to sue the state over its license plate depicting the image of an Indian "rain god" made famous by a Native American artist.

Pastor Keith Cressman of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Bethany, Okla., claims the image violates his freedom of speech. His attorney, Nate Kellum, who is with the Center for Religious Expression, says Cressman's argument is based on his objection to the state forcing him to place the license plate on his vehicle.

According to Kellum, "[Cressman] doesn't believe in the pagan myth and religion and doesn't want to promote it." The attorney adds, "But more than that, the forced promotion of this myth is troubling because as a Christian pastor who resides in an area steeped in Native American tradition, his ministry centers on convincing people to castoff myths and accept the truth of the gospel."

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At the center of Cressman's fight is a young Apache warrior shooting an arrow skyward to bring down rain as depicted in Allen Houser's "Sacred Rain Arrow" sculpture. Oklahoma Tourism officials deemed the license plate as a traveling billboard and it was voted the best license plate in the nation in 2009 by the American License Plate Collectors Association.

David Rettig, curator of collections for the Allen Houser estate, admitted to The Christian Post that he was puzzled by the lawsuit and that the image is merely a work of art, nothing else.

"The sculpture 'Sacred Rain Arrow' represents an Apache story during a time of drought when a crisis of food and survival was widespread, and a prayer was made to God for help in the form of rain," said Rettig. "The sculpture Allan Houser created to relate this story is known for its portrayal of physical strength and powerful emotion of personal reverence. The prayer is to our common God, and if one reflects on various ceremonial rituals used by multiple denominations of Christianity, I don't think the sculpture should to be viewed as representing a poly-theistic religion"

However, Cressman contends that the state is making him be like an actual billboard.

"While the State is free to market itself via use of the image, Mr. Cressman objects to being a mobile billboard for the State's purposes, particularly, when it requires him to communicate a message that he does not want to convey," said Kellum.

Cressman's lawsuit against the state began in 2011, but was dismissed by a judge in Oklahoma City until the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled 2-1 to allow the case to continue last week. Despite current approval, making headlines and filing a lawsuit outside the state was the last thing Cressman wanted, according to his lawyer.

"He tried on several occasions to obtain relief short of litigation, but the state refused to make any accommodation for him. Left with no other recourse, Mr. Cressman now seeks relief in federal court," said Kellum.

Although Cressman now has a fair chance in his fight against the state, the dissenting vote by Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr., appointed by President George H.W. Bush, contended that Cressman's argument doesn't have a solid basis.

"He asserts that the license plate promotes 'pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, and/or animism,' all of which are antithetical to his religious beliefs," said Kelly. "However, he has not alleged facts from which we can reasonably infer that others are likely to make the same series of connections. … Cressman's allegation that others are likely to perceive an ideological message based upon the image, as opposed to a historical or cultural message, lacks facial plausibility."

While Cressman is not asking the state to eliminate the 3 million license plates with the image currently on the road, he wants to avoid placing the image on his car.

"Whether that is through covering up the image while leaving the tag numbers in plain sight, obtaining an alternative plate without additional cost, or through some other method, Mr. Cressman merely seeks relief that would keep him from being a bearer of the state's message against his will," said Kellum. However, the state of Oklahoma prohibits partially covering any part of a license plate according to state officials and can incur a $300 fine as well.

Cressman's next step is uncertain. "We could go back to the District Court where that court will reconsider our motion for preliminary injunction in light of the appellate ruling," said Kellum. "But the State could file a petition for rehearing en banc in the 10th circuit (before the entire court) or possibly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. We will just have to wait and see what the state decides to do."

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