OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal appeals court has ruled that an Oklahoma minister can sue over his opposition to the state’s current license plate design, which depicts a famous sculpture that relates to the Indian rain god.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals declared on Tuesday that Keith Kressman of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Bethany has legal standing to challenge the matter in court. His case had been thrown out last month in district court.
The license plate at issue is based on a statue known as “Sacred Rain Arrow,” created by the late Allan Houser. The well-known sculpture is of an Apache Indian pointing his bow and arrow to the sky in an effort to bring down rain.
“It is depicting a young Apache warrior who was selected in a time of drought to shoot a rain arrow into the sky, into the heavens, to bring his people’s prayers to their gods so that they would get rain,” Anne Brockman of the Gilcrease Museum explained to Tulsa World.
“Sacred Rain Arrow” was seen by thousands during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
But Kressman doesn’t believe that he should be required to have the image representing prayers to the Indian rain god on his license plate. He also doesn’t think he should have to pay extra for a custom plate simply because his convictions prohibit him from utilizing the plate. Kressman is being represented by Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tennessee.
“He doesn’t want to be forced to say something that he does not want to say,” attorney Nate Kellum told the Associated Press.
Kressman also contended that the plate promotes polytheism as Indian culture involves the belief in many gods.
On Tuesday, the 10th Circuit agreed with Kressman that the plates could be construed as a state endorsement of religion, and allowed the Methodist minister to proceed with his lawsuit, which will now be sent back to the district court.
“[Kressman wishes to] remain silent with respect to images, messages and practices that he cannot endorse or accept,” it wrote.
However, one judge dissented, stating that the sculpture represented Oklahoma’s history and would unlikely be perceived as a state endorsement of Indian religious beliefs.
“Native American culture is an integral part of the history of Oklahoma and the United States. Indeed, the name ‘Oklahoma’ comes from two Choctaw words meaning ‘red people,’” wrote Judge Paul Kelly. “Oklahoma has decided to acknowledge its history by portraying a Native American cultural image on its license plate and promoting ‘Native America.’”
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been defending the plate in the courts. A spokesperson for Pruitt told reporters following the ruling that the attorney general will not concede on the matter.
“We’ll continue to defend the state’s position that Oklahoma’s license plate design does not violate Mr. Cressman’s constitutional rights,” stated Diane Clay.
Approximately 3 million Oklahoma residents bear the “rain god” plate on their vehicle according to reports.