(CN) – An Oklahoma standard license plate design depicting a Native American shooting an arrow toward the sky does not promote pantheistic spiritual beliefs or violate a Christian’s free-speech rights, the 10th Circuit ruled on Tuesday, upholding a district court decision.
According to the opinion’s overview, Oklahoma adopted the new license plate design in 2008 hoping it would attract tourism to the state. It features an image of a prominent Oklahoma statue, designed by local artist Allan Houser, called Sacred Rain Arrow.
The statue is based upon an Apache story of a young man who shot an arrow blessed by a medicine man into the sky to carry prayers for rain to the Spirit World. But Keith Cressman claimed being compelled to display the image on his license plate violated his Christian beliefs and free-speech rights.
Cressman first tried covering the image up, but the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety warned him this could result in a misdemeanor charge. For two years, he paid extra for specialty license plates without the image, and then asked the Oklahoma Attorney General for permission to cover the Native American image up or to be issued specialty plates at no extra cost.
He never received a response to his request. In 2011, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state in Federal Court.
The district court found that displaying the image did not violate Cressman’s free-speech rights because a “reasonable observer” would not read pantheistic messages into the plate.
On appeal, the 10th Circuit sided with the district court.
The 46-page opinion referenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that license plates constituted government-supported speech, then examined the exact message the state meant to convey and whether Cressman objected to that message.
Based on this analysis, the 10th Circuit determined that Cressman’s free-speech claims failed because he could not “demonstrate that the Native American image is, in fact, speech to which he objects.”
“At least in the context of its mass reproduction on Oklahoma’s standard vehicle license plate, the Native American image is not an exercise of self-expression entitled to pure-speech protection,” Circuit Judge Jerome Holmes wrote for a three-judge panel. “The image may constitute symbolic speech, but the only conceivable message a reasonable observer would glean from the license plate is one to which Mr. Cressman emphatically does not object-namely, a message that communicates Oklahoma’s Native American culture and heritage.”
Holmes also pointed out that a “reasonable observer” of the plate would be aware of the broader context of its message, which is secular: “The image was placed on Oklahoma’s standard-issue license plates by legislators who in no small measure had a secular tourism-promotion purpose in mind,” he wrote. “A central feature of that tourism-promotion purpose relates to Oklahoma’s Native American history and cultural heritage.”
“A reasonable observer would not conclude that the image, chosen by a legislative task force, with input from the public and various government agencies, was meant to generally advance pantheism or ritualistic prayer,” Holmes added. “Because Mr. Cressman does not object to the only message reasonably conveyed by the Native American image, we hold that he has not been compelled to speak in violation of his First Amendment rights.”
The appendix to the 46-page opinion includes an image of the license plate design in question.
“We’re very disappointed in the ruling,” Cressman’s attorney Nate Kellum told Courthouse News. “The Constitution recognizes graphics and images as speech, just like words. And just as a person has a right to say what he wants to say, he also has a right to refrain from saying what he does not want to say. Cressman is not seeking to change anyone else’s license plate – he only wants to avoid placing the tag with the objectionable image on his car. Whether that is through covering up the image, obtaining an alternate plate at no additional cost, or through some other method, Mr. Cressman is merely seeking to avoid Oklahoma’s attempt to make him a mobile billboard for its message against his will.”
Kellum is a staff attorney at the Center for Religious Expression.
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