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The God-fearing people of Oklahoma can breathe a sigh of relief today, safe in the knowledge that their car license plates do not require them to endorse pantheistic, pagan beliefs -- at least according to the Tenth Circuit. Those Oklahoma plates declare the state, once largely set aside as a tribal reservation, as "Native America" and depict a native man shooting an arrow into the sky.
One Oklahoman Christian took offense at the image, claiming it forced him to communicate a pantheistic message in violation of his free speech and free exercise of religion. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, holding that, while the image does have connections to certain Native American religious beliefs, no reasonable person would think the plate, or those driving the car, were endorsing pantheism.
The Sacred Rain Arrow
Though it might sound crazy, the idea that the image is connected to religious messages isn't farfetched. The license plate image, adopted in 2007, is based on the statute Sacred Rain Arrow by the Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser. That sculpture depicts an Apache archer firing a blessed arrow into the sky, sending prayers for rain into the Spirit World.
When Keith Cressman found that out, he was not pleased. A pastor with "historic Christian beliefs," he felt he could not display the plates without violating his religion. He initially tried covering them up, which was illegal. He could have purchased a specialty plate, he was told, but didn't want to pay the extra money. So he sued.
Your Interpretation Might Be a Bit Idiosyncratic...
Cressman alleged that the plates contained "symbolic speech" which, by its inclusion on standard plates, compelled him to speak in violation of his First Amendment rights. In a prior round of litigation, the Tenth Circuit had ruled that the Native American image did indeed constitute symbolic speech and that it was "sufficiently linked" to Cressman to raise speech concerns. What it did not address was whether that speech said what Cressman alleged. It did not.
Compelled speech violates First Amendment rights when if forces an individual to be "an instrument for fostering public adherence to a point of view he finds unacceptable." Cressman cannot show that the image depicts "a point of view he finds unacceptable," the Tenth ruled. Instead, "the only conceivable message a reasonable observer would glean" from the plate is unobjectionable: that Oklahoma has a Native American culture and history. Since no reasonable person, Cressman excluded, would view the image as a religious endorsement, Cressman cannot claim he is being forced to express a message he objects to.
Now, Cressman's only recourse would be intervention from a higher power -- the Supreme Court -- or to switch to a specialty plate for a few extra bucks. We recommend the Chickasaw or Choctaw Nation plates which, ironically, feature no Native American imagery.