A Christian Man Sued Oklahoma Over a Religious Image on its License Plates… and Won

This is good news for all of us.

First, some background: Below is a sculpture called “Sacred Rain Arrow” by Oklahoman Allan Houser. It’s currently housed in Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum.

“It is depicting a young Apache warrior who was selected in a time of drought to shoot a rain arrow into the sky, into the heavens, to bring his people’s prayers to their gods so that they would get rain,” said Anne Brockman, Gilcrease Museum public information officer.

The sculpture has been on display at Gilcrease since 1988 or 1989, she said. It is at the front entrance to the museum, she said.

In 2009, the state began issuing license plates featuring an image of the sculpture:

So here’s the question we have to consider: Is this merely a representation of Oklahoma’s Native American history or an illegal endorsement of religion?

In any case, if you wanted a different plate, you had to pay an additional fee. If you covered up the image, you could face a penalty. Keith Cressman, a Christian, paid for a new plate for a while but, eventually, he decided he shouldn’t have to. Why should the default option promote a religion that wasn’t his? Cressman having a Native American myth on his license plate was pretty similar to atheists having a cross on theirs.

Cressman soon filed a lawsuit (PDF) against state officials:

Mr. Cressman 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 United States Constitution… Alternatively, he sought to compel the Defendants to provide him with specialty license plates at no additional cost.

The district court threw out his lawsuit last May. But today, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed that ruling (PDF), 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 that others would likely understand and therefore constitutes symbolic speech that qualifies for First Amendment protection. 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.

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.

(Thanks to Beau for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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