Pastor's Protest of Apache 'Rain God' License Plate Wins Second Hearing
An Oklahoma pastor has been fighting his state's new license plate, arguing that its Native American theme violates his religious freedom. It's an argument that deserves consideration, according to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in an interesting twist on the longstanding debate over religious images and phrases on state license plates.
For those not familiar with the backstory, the image of a Native American shooting an arrow into the sky on Oklahoma's standard license plate might seem to constitute a simple nod to state history.
But pastor Keith Cressman of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Bethany, Oklahoma, recognizes that the image alludes to an Apache legend in which the bow and arrow were divinely granted the ability to end a drought. So for Cressman, the state's use of the image on its standard plate violates his religious expression by forcing him to promote another religion's beliefs.
Cressman's suit, initially dismissed by a district judge, has been granted a rehearing by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Noting that the image's connotations make his license plate a "mobile billboard" for traditional Native American beliefs, Cressman and his lawyer are arguing that the image, which can be considered a form of speech, should not be forced by the state on its citizens. Although alternative plate designs exist, Cressman has noted that the extra cost associated with such specialty tags hampers his ability to enjoy freedom of speech and religion.
The image, itself based on a Smithsonian-owned sculpture titled "Sacred Rain Arrow," is well-known in Oklahoma. The sculpture and its accompanying story symbolizes the "strength, dignity, beauty and spirituality" of sculptor Alan Houser's native Chiricahua Apache tribe.
CT regularly covers stories related to Native Americans, such as disagreement over dismantling a Native American sweat lodge, as well as ongoing controversy over Christian messages on license plates in numerous states.