The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a Christian man can sue the state of Oklahoma over the state’s license plate depicting a piece of artwork by a famous Native American.
The 2-1 decision issued on Tuesday found that the religious freedom of Keith Cressman, a Christian pastor from the Oklahoma City area, could potentially be violated by the state’s licence plates that depict the “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture by the long-deceased Oklahoma artist Allan Houser. Cressman argued that the plates “might imply his approval of contrary beliefs, such as that God and nature are one, that other deities exist, or that ‘animals, plants, rocks, and other natural phenomena” have souls or spirits.”
Judge Scott Matheson Jr., an Obama-appointed judge, agreed with Cressman, saying that his only alternative to displaying the license plate was to purchase a novelty plate that he better agreed with, which costs an additional $37 more than the standard plate. “His complaint plausibly ties the license plate image to a specific sculpture that conveys a specific message. Further, he sufficiently alleges that others will perceive that the image conveys the message to which he objects. As to whether others are in fact likely to perceive the message Mr. Cressman alleges, further factual development through discovery may or may not support his allegation, but we cannot question it at this stage of the litigation.”
Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr., appointed by President George H.W. Bush, wrote in his dissent, “Mr. Cressman has connected the image on Oklahoma’s license plate to the sculpture and that sculpture to a Native American legend. He 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.”
The state of Oklahoma adopted the new plates in 2008, requesting copyright use from Houser’s estate. The sculpture, arguably as Houser’s most famous work, has been displayed in many other official capacities, including a copy that resided for a long time in the late Sen. Dan Inouye’s committee room. A copy also resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (the museum also opened with a retrospective of his work in 2004) and several copies were displayed during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Another work by Houser has been at the United Nations in New York since the Reagan administration that also pays tribute to a “great spirit.”
David Rettig, curator of collections for the Allen Houser estate, told Raw Story, “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.
Still, as Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel at the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, pointed out, the law in this regard is actually quite clear. The 1977 Supreme Court decision, Wooley vs. Maynard, ruled that New Hampshire could not require its residents to display the slogan “Live free or die” on its license plates if they found it “repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs.”
“The separation of church and state benefits people who are religious as much as it benefits people who have no religion,” Lipper told Raw Story. Though Lipper said he wasn’t familiar enough with Houser’s artwork to know if it had religious meaning, “in this particular instance, it’s enough to say that this plaintiff believes that it does and the state can’t force people to display religious messages on things like license plates.”
“The next time it happens it might be a different religion that they don’t agree with,” Lipper said, such as Christians in a California school who are suing over yoga classes. “It’s interesting that Christians are now invoking the separation of church and state.”
[Sample Oklahoma license plate courtesy Allan Houser press release]
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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