Beliefs Culture Institutions Politics

Appeals court OK’s pastor’s suit against Oklahoma license plate

Oklahoma license plate image courtesy Madeleine Holland via Flickr

(RNS) A Methodist pastor of a suburban Oklahama City church is suing the state, claiming its license plate image of a Native American shooting an arrow into the sky violates his religious liberty.

Oklahoma license plate image courtesy Madeleine Holland via Flickr (

Oklahoma license plate image courtesy Madeleine Holland via Flickr

Last week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled his suit can proceed.

The pastor, Keith Cressman of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Bethany, Okla., contends the image of the Native American compels him to be a “mobile billboard” for a pagan religion.

A trial judge threw out the suit. But on June 11, the appeals court ruled that Judge Joe Heaton should have recognized that Cressman’s suit contained a “plausible compelled speech claim.”

Cressman, a former lawyer, claims he can’t be compelled to use religious speech that violates his own religious beliefs.

Cressman’s lawyer, Nathan Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tenn., said the First Amendment not only guarantees freedom of expression and religion, it also guarantees that people cannot be forced to say things with which they do not agree.

“My client does not believe he should be compelled to display an image that communicates a pagan practice, that of shooting an arrow into the sky to draw rain from a ‘rain god,’” Kellum said.

The image is a reproduction of a sculpture by master sculptor Allan Houser, a version of which is owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Titled “Sacred Rain Arrow,” the piece is based on an ancient Chiricahua Apache legend about a warrior who had his bow and arrow blessed by a medicine man for the purpose of ending a drought.

A committee chose the image because it is very well known in Oklahoma and sits in front of Tulsa’s Thomas Gilcrease Museum.

The appeals court ruled that Cressman had presented enough evidence to establish that the message on the license plate is a “particularized claim” that others would recognize.

Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, said the 10th Circuit is well known for its tendency to err on the side of freedom of speech.

The state could allow the trial to return to Heaton’s court, file a petition for rehearing before the entire appellate court or petition to be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.


About the author

Greg Horton


Click here to post a comment

  • I just want this pastor to know, he can move OUT of Oklahoma at his leisure. Number one, Oklahoma IS Native Territory, or what’s left of it. If YOUR religion hadn’t come into the tribes and bashed them, forced them into Schools and to forget their language, WE would have been just fine, so get OUT of Native America if you don’t like the tribute to the Native people that represents our fine state of Oklahoma!

  • And another thing…What do you actually know about Native religion or spirituality? Nothing is my guess, by the idiotic comment quoted in the article about it being a “Pagan religion”. Worshiping the “Creator” has and always will be the prime spirituality choice for most if not ALL tribes. Who do you worship and where does the tradition come from? I bet you can’t hold an intellectual conversation on your own against Native Spirituality.

  • So is pastor Cressman also advocating for removal of In God We Trust from all currency? What about Under God from the pledge of allegiance?

  • Oklahoma has special license plates out the wazoo. If he doesn’t want a pagan Indian on his car, he can get one to support OU, the National Guard, wild flowers, Choose Life and adopt a pet.

  • Speaking as a sister Methodist, I’m shocked at the insensitivity expressed by Brother Cressman in his lawsuit. I’m surprised that Bishop Robert Hayes or the clergy session of the Oklahoma Annual Conference hasn’t called him on the carpet for his racism. I only hope he is never assigned to a church in our Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.

  • I love the fact that science and theology intersect through the artwork on the Oklahoma license plate. This design shows human effort to use both technology and theology (prayer) to assist in their survival in dealing with the natural world and its challenges.The Sacred Rain Arrow symbolizing Oklahoma’s American Native American heritage has been recognized for its beautiful, ascetic design having received a number of awards. I am appreciative of the meaning behind the artwork and enjoy seeing the plate whenever I encounter it. May the Sacred Rain Arrow find its target. I hope to add one to the collection of the Space Exploration Archive.

  • Then let’s get rid of everything on license plates except a letter-digit ID! This is bigoted reasoning, not judicial thinking. It’s to be expected from so-called judges in the middle of our country and in the South. These areas are swarming with bigots, tea partiers, religious extremists!

    Since we can’t force literacy, since we can’t prevent bigotry, perhaps it’s time to break up into several smaller nations because it has become very evident that we are unable to stop the stop the mad differences of culture that are tearing us apart, stopping government while we still pay billions to politicians to pretend they are governing.

    It is obvious we have never been a democracy–in spite of all claims to the contrary–and illiteracy and bigotry prevent us from ever becoming a democracy. It is time to divorce and go separate ways.

  • For sure! After we stole most of what we consider our nation today, even under the guise of “purchasing” Louisiana from the French, we chased the Indians we did not murder off their land. We stole it from them, then we stole the whole southwest of the country from Hispanic Mexico.

    And now we dare to brazenly practice bigotry by trying to limit immigration, setting rules to call it “illegal,” by falsely claiming all kinds of reasons other than our prejudice against the Hispanics from whom we stole their lands. How come we didn’t to that to any English, to the French, to the Germans, not even to the Irish and the Italians against whom so much hateful bigotry was practiced for generations?

    Ah ha! The color of their skin was more like ours! We had to resort to impoverishing and ghettoizing darker skinned people as a way of excusing our earlier, unbelievable, inhumane, undemocratic enslavement of them. That was the lie of our claim to be a democracy from the very start. It continues!

  • It is with very, very few people that theology and religion ever really intersect. Even in those instances where it is claimed to do so, science is always short-changed. Theology and science are contradictions of sorts. Theology is really continuing mythology, reconfigurations of ancient explanations of realities that were not understood. Science is grounded in reality. Science is proven facts, tested over and over for confirmation. Theology claims more than we can know. Science very cautiously moves the frontiers of knowledge forward bit by bit, constantly testing and re-testing, always open to revision.

  • Couldn’t we sing Kumbayah or play a tom tom while we think of how much better it was to live in tents and wear stinky buffalo hides? This modern aspirin tablet cell phone microwave world is so boring. Just set the room temperature and the thermostat does the rest. Shucks. Nothing beats doing your laundry on rocks at the stream (after you’ve had your morning drink).. or taking a dump in a ditch at 35 degrees below zero. I can see how you’d long for the ancient ways. The good old days. If you don’t shoot it you don’t eat it days. White men ruined all of that. Now you just can’t escape HDTV and text messages,. It’s hard today.

  • Not so fast: most of us were in the Order of the Arrow! We had a head dress and a paddle canoes around a lake and too pledges for BSA. We did all the Indian stuff. We’d get a corn cob pipe for 15 cents and a pouch of tobacco and some stick matches you could light on your thumbnail .. and we’d all smoke those pipes (4th grade . 5th grade. stunted our growth)(played hookie) talked Injun talk. threw scout knives. skinny dipped in the creek. Made rope swings. Had secret club words. (but we had to be home by dinner or get the tar whupped out of us)

  • I spent a couple weeks in Moore-Norman and differences notwithstanding Oklahoma is pure American. Lovely Christian people. Incredible people and Christians from all over the U.S. were there. Warehouses of Christian food, clothes, blankets, baby care, toiletries .. but most all OUTSTANDING Christian pastors and church people (I could not complement them enough) AND most of us (in the U.S. ) are pro-Indian, pro-casino LOL, want whats good for everyone especially children. OKLAHOMA YOU ARE OK! In fact you are GREAT!! I wish we could all be like Oklahoma (most of our problems would go away)

  • Pastor Cressman ought to have a little more respect for the native American. A man on horseback with an arrow is not a pagan symbol (not any more than a Viking long boat or a pepperoni pizza). However a large pepperoni does inspire you to sing “O Solo Mio” (but Elvis Presley style). But wait . what happens if you have an Oklahoma License plate, a pepperoni pizza and a bratwurst sandwich in the same car? Can you imagine? Now somebody in the back seat wants to listen to 12 bar blues? This must be America!

  • Has he been prevented from purchasing one of the other available images for his license plates? Oklahoma has several options available, so the pastor is making a stink out of absolutely nothing at all — and that’s even before addressing his idiotic claims about being a billboard for pagan religion.

  • So right! I am so sick of the religious loons. Regardless of the beliefs espoused by the Warrior, it is part of Oklahoma history. Next the Christian loons will clamor to have the monument taken down.

  • Indians don’t need Christian missionaries. They’ve had everything taken from them, including their land. They don’t need white religion shoved down their throat as well. If you really are shocked at insensitivity, keep the Bible off the Rez.

  • Obviously he is TOO CHEAP to buy a personalized plate. Or simply ASK for an alternate plate at no charge if he imagines native religion being forced upon him. The latter would be simple and probably easy to arrange, but it wouldn’t get his name in the papers, and that’s what he wants, ultimately.

  • This so called Christian pastor sounds more religious than a true Christian. Jesus said, “do you all not serve the same God?” You would think this pastor would be proud of anyone looking to God for rain no matter how symbolic it appears such as an arrow. It says this religious pastor is a former attorney, there’s the problem.

  • Your Order of the Arrow is ripe with borrowed culture, and none of it is authentic. You call it “indian stuff” as if it all lives in antiquity. Boy, I know 6 & 7 year olds that can run circles around your meek attempts to “play indian”. What Sachem gave you honors to wear a true War Bonnet? None, because you did not earn so many feathers through merit and valor as the Plains tribes had for millennia. Those pipes you smoked out of are from the corn husking days in the Appalachians.
    And to say you talked injun talk….. you are highly disrespectful of a people that contributed everything to your race’s survival in these lands.
    So many of those practices you did at den meets and summer camps ate pure mockeries of true day-to-day life of the old ways. You don’t know your history sir, so don’t pretend that you do.
    And the Native American consultants that advise on the do’s and don’ts of your silly games of brotherhood are falsifying your ideas while snickering at how you are giving tribute and honor to our Great Creator through our old traditions you imitate so poorly, even though you do all these things in the name of Christ… and as is typical, you ignore your own blatant hypocrisy.
    I applaud for a stunning argument… only because I’m laughing at how relevant and falsely proud you think your statement is.