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Court Rules Native American Symbol Does Not Contain A Religious Message

A federal appeals court ruled on Aug. 4 that Oklahoma’s standard license plate does not contain a religious message, as a lawsuit by a Bethany pastor claimed.

The license plate, which depicts an Apache warrior shooting an arrow into the sky is non-religious, the court ruled, rejecting the claim of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church pastor, Keith Cressman, who said the image was an affront to his Christian beliefs.

The ruling from the 10th Circuit of U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, by rejecting the lawsuit.

The pastor’s attorney said he was disappointed by the ruling and is considering an appeal, reports KOCO.

“Mr. Cressman’s claim fails because he cannot demonstrate that the Native American image is, in fact, speech to which he objects,” the court found.

“Throughout this litigation, the only reason Mr. Cressman has offered for objecting to the Native American image is what he views as its links to pantheistic Native American folklore,” said the court.

The image was inspired by Allan Houser’s “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture, which was featured at the Olympic Village during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Houser, an Apache sculptor born in Oklahoma, was one of the most renowned sculptors of the 20th century.

The 10th Circuit ruled that a “reasonable observer” would not see the image on the plates as communicating the legend of the warrior who shot an arrow skyward to bring rain. “Those viewing the image would likely connect the image to Oklahoma’s Native American history and culture,” the court said, reports News OK.

“At least in the context of its mass reproduction on Oklahoma's standard vehicle license plate, the Native American image is not an exercise of self-expression entitled to pure-speech protection," the court ruled.

Cressman said the image conveyed a message that there are multiple gods and that the arrow was an “intermediary for prayer.” He said that the religious symbolism was contrary to his Christian beliefs and he should not have to display it on his vehicle or purchase a more expensive specialty plate.

Chief counsel for the Tennessee-based Center for Religious Expression, Nate Kellum, who represented Cressman, said that the court’s ruling was a disappointment. “We believe the decision begs for further consideration.”

Sources: KOCO, News OK / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


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