Secular Statue, Religious Statue

Via Rawstory, an Oklahoma man will be allowed to sue the state for its depiction of a allegedly religious statue on the state license plate.

The plaintiff is Keith Cressman. The statue is “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture by the late artist Allan Houser. The question that is likely to come up in the trial is whether or not the statue is religious. Or rather, do people perceive the statue as religious?

It’s a tricky question. Consider the secular Christmas display. Our culture has already decided that Santa Clause is secular, even though his full name is “Saint Nicholas” and he has a distincly religious backstory. St. Nick stands next to the Christmas tree, originally a Christian symbol with possible roots back to pre-christian midwinter festivals.

Are these secular symbols? Religious symbols? It really comes down to the viewer, and that’s the problem that Cressman has. Can he convince the next batch of judges that the image will lead people to think he approves of beliefs like “God and nature are one, that other deities exist, or that ‘animals, plants, rocks, and other natural phenomena” have souls or spirits.”

The appeals court decided that the answer would have to wait until the next phase of the litigation. The dissenting judge disagreed, and noted that Cressman had made no argument:

He [Cressman] asserts that the license plate promotes ‘pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, and/or animism,’ all of which are antithetical to his religious beliefs. 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.

My guess is that with a name like “Sacred Rain Dance,” Cressman won’t have any problem convincing the court. Certainly the curator of Allen Houser’s estate, David Rettig, isn’t doing Oklahoma any favors:

“We were just pretty miffed to see that it would be controversial.” Rettig said that Cressman seemed to think that the statue depicted some kind of “pagan ritual” but that was a misinterpretation of Houser’s work, but “that’s certainly not the intent of it.”

“Allan, in his work, believed in a single great spirit,” Rettig continued. “[Cressman's] trying to parallel this imagery with something from greek mythology or some multi-theist culture.” Rettig pointed out that a Catholic church even once commissioned a Houser piece entitled “prayer” to memorialize a deceased church member.

So not polytheism but monotheism. But still religious, and not Cressman’s religion. If Rettig thinks he rebutting Cressman’s argument, he’s failing.

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  • Yoav

    The question is, would Mr Cressman see the similarity when someone else complain the next time Oklahoma try to stick a cross on a public building or is his objection to forcing religious displays doesn’t cover jesus.

    • kessy_athena

      Do you really even have to ask? Nothing like publicly flaunting blatant hypocrisy. Although I have to say that I’ve never really seen why people would make a big deal out of license plates.

      • Kevin R. Cross

        I can. It’s a symbol placed on your vehicle of choice – an object as, or in some cases more, personal than your home. And there is a long history of using your vehicle as a platform for your views. I would certainly strongly object to being forced to publicly support a meassage I disagreed with.

        • kessy_athena

          There’s a variety of plate designs you can choose from today, ranging from plain vanilla to reflecting a variety of interests, such as universities and so forth. He’s not being forced to put anything on his car, he’s objecting to other people putting it on theirs.

          • Yoav

            The way I understand it the statue appears (or is about to) on the standard Oklahoma plate so if you don’t want it you have to pay extra for a specialty plate.

            • kessy_athena

              Ah, okay, I didn’t realize that. I do have some sympathy for the guy then, the plain vanilla plate should be as neutral as possible.

          • Kevin R. Cross

            No, he’s objecting to being forced to either accept a symbol or pay for the privilege of not doing so. And I fully support that.

  • vasaroti

    Just look at the pagan-inspired church this pastor preaches in! It’s got columns in front, just like those pagan Egyptian and Greek temples!

    Most damning of all, there’s a redbud tree smack-dab in front!

    “A Native American legend refers to a woman who gave Seets-a’ ma a beautiful bag. It was red as blood, for it was made of the flowers of the redbud tree. In this bag was the color and fragrance of the flowers, which grew on the Tree Of Light, which fell down from heaven into the Great water.”

    I don’t recall that in the Bible!