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Religious Law

Pastor’s suit over license plate image is tossed by federal court

Posted Jan 16, 2014 7:20 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A federal judge has dismissed a suit by a Methodist pastor who contended an image on standard Oklahoma license plates depicted a religious message that conflicted with his beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton ruled Tuesday against Keith Cressman, who claimed the plates violated his First Amendment right against compelled speech. The Tulsa World and the Oklahoman have stories, while How Appealing links to the decision (PDF).

The license plate pictures a Native American shooting an arrow into the sky. Cressman said the picture is based on a sculpture by Allan Houser that depicts an Apache warrior shooting an arrow into the spirit world that carries a prayer for rain.

But Heaton found no constitutional violation because a reasonable observer would not be likely to discern a religious message from the license plate.

"There is nothing about the image that suggests the man is praying or that the arrow he is shooting is sacred," Heaton wrote. "There is nothing about the image that suggests he is worried about rain, or the lack thereof. There is nothing about the image that suggests he believes in one god, no god, or several. It simply depicts a Native American shooting a bow and arrow."

Cressman’s lawyer said he would appeal.

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