A Christian man is suing the state of Oklahoma because he believes he is being forced to honor a Native American deity.
Keith Cressman is attempting to sue the state over the depiction of the "Sacred Arrow Rain" sculpture used on the official Oklahoma license plates.
This sculpture shows a Native American warrior shooting an arrow at the sky in the hopes of a rain god bringing rain, and Cressman, who is identified as a Christian, feels this is a violation of his First Amendment rights because he is forced either to display an image he finds offensive or pay extra money for a plate he finds more acceptable. The state does issue an "In God We Trust" license plate, but at an initial cost of $18 and an annual renewal fee of $16.50).
Cressman's case was originally dismissed in 2012 at the district court level, but that dismissal was reversed earlier this week by the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals because it felt the license plate constituted an act of compelled speech.
The statue is on display at Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum, one of the largest collections of American West art in the nation. The plate shows a photo of the statue and that's why Cressman will eventually win.
I'm really having problems deciding how I feel about this case. While it's easy to laugh it off with a "Boy, those Christians are such delicate little flowers, aren't they?", Cressman may actually have a worthy point worth discussing.
Here's where I can see Cressman losing. It's short and sweet.
The license plate does not depict a Native American deity, religious icon, or scene from a religious story. It shows a photo of a statue of an Indiana Brave shooting an arrow. That's it. Even if you acknowledge that the man is praying, it's not blatantly obvious.
Cressman has another option too. He can pay a little extra to get another type of license plate that doesn't have the photo of the statue on it. He can even choose a plate that is explicitly Christian.
In this scenario, the case decides on whether or not the statue is art or religious iconography. Remove the religious connotation and it leaves the plaintiff no feet to stand on. Since that one particular statue or brave isn't venerated by Native Americans, Cressman loses.
The argument that Cressman would lose is not, however, bulletproof. Let's follow the reasoning to it's logical conclusion. What if the statue was instead a photo of monk, saint, or priest praying?
Let's say our hypothetical example shows a photo of a statue of a Christian monk with a book in hand and his head bowed in prayer. The license plate wouldn't display a Christian deity, religious icon, or scene from a religious story. Even if you acknowledge that the man is praying, it's not blatantly obvious. Again, if you remove the religious connotation, the image is okay.
Or is this more blatant than the current plate? Members of other religions would surely protest the Christian image. Protestants and Jews could voice outrage over the idolatry implicit in the image. Atheists and agnostics could voice displeasure over the display of faith in a deity altogether. When you look at a statue of a monk, priest, or saint, it's usually pretty obvious that it's religious art. You may not understand the exact meaning, but you know it's religious.
And if the Christian praying to his God is a religious display, than isn't the statue of a Native American praying to a rain god? While the spiritual beliefs of early American history may not be as well-known or recognized, prayer to a deity is prayer to a deity. The license plate, no matter how subtle, contains religious imagery.
Win, Lose or Draw
Cressman will end up winning his case. The grey areas involved are too wide and too many possibilities arise by allowing this particular statue to be featured on the plate.
While it's not a ridiculous blatant religious display, it is still a religious image. Cressman is being forced to show an image of prayer to a deity he doesn't believe in every time he takes his car out of the garage. He has to buy a license plate from the government that shows a religious image.
He can choose an other option, but he has to pay extra for the alternative. He has to do more than the average guy on the street to meet the law that requires him to have a license plate. That's punishing him for following his religious beliefs.
What do you think? Will the statue be judged religious imagery? Or will it be declared art and simply a statue? Will Cressman win or will he lose?