Earlier this week the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals approved a lawsuit by a Christian pastor against Oklahoma over the state-issued license plate. Why? Let me explain.
The Oklahoma license plate, which was adopted in 2009, features the image of a sculpture by the late Allan Houser called “Sacred Rain Arrow.” It’s based on a based on an ancient Chiricahua Apache legend about a warrior whose bow and arrow was blessed by a medicine man for the purpose of ending a drought. Keith Cressman, an Oklahoma pastor, is arguing that, by being forced to display the tag on his vehicle, he’s being forced to endorse a religious view he does not agree with. People might think that – gasp! – he’s a pagan! Because that would be the worst thing in the world, I guess.
My first reaction to this was, Wow! That’s mad racist! I, mean, I live in Kansas. I have family in Oklahoma. I see cars with Oklahoma plates all the time. Do you know what thought goes through my head precisely zero percent of the time? I never think, ‘Those people must be pagan!’ (Ten percent of the time my thought is, ‘Huh. What are they doing up here?’ The remaining 90 percent is nothing, because who cares?) The license plate always struck me as an homage to a people Europeans treated really terribly. It kind of seems like the least they could do.
So it seems like kind of a jerk move. I cannot believe that anyone actually attributes Apache beliefs to Cressman. Especially when everyone in the state has the same plate. That said, this guy might have a point.
Let’s flip this situation. Let’s say that a state wanted to put a Christian symbol on a license plate that you had to have on your car. Let’s say that, if you don’t want this on your car your only option is to purchase a novelty plate, which costs extra. (This is Cressman’s situation.) Even if the state didn’t mean to promote Christianity, but just wanted to reflect a culture, I don’t know a lot of progressive people that would be cool with that.
That’s not a perfect analogy. The most obvious flaw is that Christianity is the dominant religious culture. People are more likely to just assume you’re Christian than anything else. It’s really not OK for the dominant culture to force itself on others via the state. Separation of church and state can come in handy for everybody, not just religious minorities. As reported in Raw Story:
Still, as Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel at the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, pointed out, the law in this regard is actually quite clear. The 1977 Supreme Court decision, Wooley vs. Maynard, ruled that New Hampshire could not require its residents to display the slogan “Live free or die” on its license plates if they found it “repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs.”
“The separation of church and state benefits people who are religious as much as it benefits people who have no religion,” Lipper told Raw Story. Though Lipper said he wasn’t familiar enough with Houser’s artwork to know if it had religious meaning, “in this particular instance, it’s enough to say that this plaintiff believes that it does and the state can’t force people to display religious messages on things like license plates.”
Cressman is alleging that being forced to display the plate would imply that he supports religious beliefs that are contrary to his actual beliefs. But what is important to remember right now is that the court hasn’t ruled on any of the facts. The court of appeals just made it so Cressman can have his day in court. Cressman still needs to prove his allegations.
I’ll admit, this case still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And the irony is palpable. It’s not usual for Christians to invoke church-state separation (unless schools are teaching yoga). But, hey. The first amendment belongs to everybody.
Image credit: Flickr
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