Native-Themed License Plate Could Allegedly Promote Pantheism

Carol Berry
June 14, 2013


An Oklahoman who felt an American Indian image on his car’s state-issued license plate violated his civil rights received a positive hearing from two of three federal appeals court justices in Denver June 12.

Keith Cressman objected to a depiction on the Oklahoma license plate of a sculpture by the late Allan Houser, noted Chiricahua Apache artist, of “Sacred Rain Arrow,” which shows a man shooting an arrow skyward to convey peoples’ prayers for rain during a drought.

“Pantheism, polytheism, and/or animism,” to which Cressman does not subscribe, are promoted by the license plate, he contends in court records.

Cressman said that the image could constitute Oklahoma’s endorsement of a non-Christian religion and that requiring him to show it on his license plate is in violation of his constitutional free speech and religious rights. The image is symbolic speech with which Cressman does not agree, but which he must display, the court acknowledged.

His initial civil rights lawsuit over the issue was filed in 2011 against Oklahoma public safety and tax commission officials, but it was dismissed in 2012 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, so he brought his case before a three-justice panel of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in a split decision reversed the lower court’s ruling and reinstated the lawsuit.

Although Cressman “sufficiently alleges that others will perceive that the image conveys the message to which he objects,” the majority ruled, Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr., writing in dissent, said it’s implausible that others would regard the image as an ideological message rather than a historical or cultural one.

“Native American culture is an integral part of the history of Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “Oklahoma has decided to acknowledge its history by portraying a Native American cultural image on its license plate and promoting ‘Native America.’”

Cressman had sought ways to avoid displaying the license plate’s image, but it is unlawful to conceal parts of the standard Oklahoma license plate, while the specialty plates he finally purchased that do not carry the image are more expensive, creating a “monetary injury,” the court ruled.

The lawsuit, Cressman v. Michael C. Thompson, in his official capacity as Secretary of Safety and Security and as the Commissioner of Public Safety for the state of Oklahoma, et al., was filed June 11 without the dissenting statement, but was re-issued June 12 with the dissent attached.