DENVER — An appeals court gave new life Tuesday to a lawsuit of a Bethany pastor who claims an American Indian image on Oklahoma's standard license plates violates his religious rights as a Christian.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that a judge in Oklahoma City erred by throwing out the lawsuit of Keith Cressman, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Bethany.
Cressman objects to the image of an American Indian shooting an arrow toward the sky to bring down rain.
He claims the image unconstitutionally contradicts his Christian beliefs by depicting Indian religious beliefs, and that he shouldn't have to display the image.
The appellate judges stated Oklahoma law imposes sanctions for covering up the image, and the state charges more for specialty plates without it.
His lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City seeks a court order allowing him either to cover up the image on his plates or to get a personalized plate for the same cost as a standard license plate.
“Mr. Cressman's (lawsuit) states a plausible compelled speech claim,” the appellate judges wrote Tuesday in a 39-page decision, reversing Judge Joe Heaton's dismissal of the lawsuit.
“He has alleged sufficient facts to suggest that the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow' image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message that others are likely to understand and to which he objects.”
Cressman would prefer to “remain silent with respect to images, messages and practices that he cannot endorse or accept,” the appeals court said.
Cressman's attorney, Nathan Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tenn., said the decision may boost his client's chances when the case goes back to Heaton for further proceedings.
“It appears that the court has recognized the constitutional rights at stake and that Mr. Cressman could very well be suffering from forced compulsion of speech,” Kellum said.
The Oklahoma attorney general's staff is representing state officials defending the state's position.
“The 10th Circuit decision simply recognizes the importance of the First Amendment and offers another chance to review this case,” said a spokeswoman for the office.
“We'll continue to defend the state's position that Oklahoma's license plate design does not violate Mr. Cressman's constitutional rights.”
The image is of a sculpture at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa by Allan Houser. The change in license plate design began in 2009.
Senior 10th Circuit Judge William Holloway, of Oklahoma City, was one of the three judges of the Denver-based court which issued Tuesday's decision.