Court: Christian driver can sue Oklahoma over 'rain god' license plate

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oklahoma_plate

The challenged Oklahoma license plate.

A federal appeals court said this week that an Oklahoma man can sue the state over its Indian “rain god” license plate, ruling that the depiction of a noted sculpture on 3 million license plates could be interpreted as a state endorsement of a religion.

Keith Cressman of Oklahoma City sued a number of state officials in 2011, arguing that Oklahoma’s standard license plate depicted Native American religious beliefs that run contrary to his Christianity. U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton dismissed the lawsuit in May 2012 but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it on June 11.

Cressman would prefer to “remain silent with respect to images, messages and practices that he cannot endorse or accept,” the appeals court said. The man’s lawyer, Nathan Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tenn., said Cressman did not want to display an image that communicates a message “which he finds objectionable.”

“He doesn’t want to be forced to say something that he does not want to say,” Kellum said.

Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office, which is defending the lawsuit, said in a statement that the appeals court’s decision presents another opportunity to review the case.

“We’ll continue to defend the state’s position that Oklahoma’s license plate design does not violate Mr. Cressman’s constitutional rights,” Clay said.

It is against state law to cover up the image, so to avoid displaying the image Cressman initially purchased a specialty license plate that cost $37 more than the standard plate and had a $35 renewal fee. He then purchased a cheaper specialty license plate, which cost $18 more than the standard plate and cost $16.50 for renewal.

The standard Oklahoma license plate depicts Allan Houser’s “Sacred Rain Arrow” bronze sculpture, which has been on display at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum for about 20 years. The tag’s design was adopted in 2008 in a license plate reissuance plan that marked the first time in almost 16 years that the state had issued redesigned license plates for the more than 3 million vehicles registered in the state.

The sculpture depicts an Indian shooting an arrow skyward to bring down rain. Cressman’s lawsuit alleged that the sculpture is based on a Native American legend in which a warrior convinced a medicine man to bless his bow and arrows during a time of drought. The warrior shot an arrow into the sky, hoping the “spirit world” or “rain god” would answer the people’s prayers for rain.

Oklahoma’s previous license plate featured the Osage Nation shield in the plate’s center. The “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture is featured ojn the left side of the new plates.

The appeals court’s decision says Cressman “adheres to historic Christian beliefs” and believes it is a sin “to honor or acknowledge anyone or anything as God besides the one true God.”

He eventually decided not to pay the additional fees but to cover up the image on the standard plate without obscuring letters, tags or other identifying markers on the plate. He said state officials told him it was illegal to cover up any part of it and he might have to pay a $300 fine.

Cressman is still paying additional fees for specialty license plates on two vehicles registered in the state but “does not want to incur extra expense to avoid expressing a message contrary to his religious beliefs,” the decision states.

“Mr. Cressman’s complaint states a plausible compelled speech claim,” it concludes. “He has alleged sufficient facts to suggest that the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow’ image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message that others are likely to understand and to which he objects.”

State Treasurer Ken Miller, who authored the license plate reissuance legislation while serving in the Oklahoma House, said the lawsuit “is another case of political correctness run amok.”

“I am proud of my Christian heritage and the rich heritage of our state, which is appropriately honored with the beautiful Allan Houser sculpture on the license plate.” Miller said in a statement.

Comments 

0 7 shurlock 2013-06-16 10:11
Quoting Michael:
Quoting Dave Old-Wolf:
christians..........some of the most vindictive and angry people that have ever been afraid of Indians and apparently still are.

:o Way to generalize, buddy. I am Christian and part Native American. I have no fear of myself nor of the "Indians". By the way, what do people from a country in southern Asia (India) have to do with this story about Native American symbols and the Oklahoma license plate?


Get over yourself, putz.
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-1 6 Michael 2013-06-14 08:57
Quoting Dave Old-Wolf:
christians..........some of the most vindictive and angry people that have ever been afraid of Indians and apparently still are.

:o Way to generalize, buddy. I am Christian and part Native American. I have no fear of myself nor of the "Indians". By the way, what do people from a country in southern Asia (India) have to do with this story about Native American symbols and the Oklahoma license plate?
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+1 5 Al 2013-06-14 06:33
And if it had been a cross on the plate, you all would have been lining up to sue. Dave Old-Wolf needs to start being a bit more even-handed in his criticism, as well as to be less judgemental over someone else's sensitivities. Oh yeah, I forgot, he's special...
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+3 4 Lea 2013-06-13 23:26
Keith Cressman should be ashamed of himself and other Christians, "true Christians", should be embarrassed to even be but in the same category as this man. Haven't the Christians done enough in the history of our country to screw over the Native Americans? Perhaps Keith Cressman should take the time to read his bible instead of filing disgusting lawsuits like this and wasting the courts time.
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0 3 Nuala Shields 2013-06-13 21:09
I remember New Hampshire going through this when I lived there. The license plates had the state motto: "Live Free Or Die" and the person objecting taped it over. Here's the case:

http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/wooley.html
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+2 2 Roger 2013-06-13 20:15
I hope he wins! This will set a wonderful precedent to have "God bless Texas" plates scrutinised. :P
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+3 1 Bubba three balls 2013-06-13 19:44
I see no vindictiveness here, only someone who wants the law applied equally to all.
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