A lawsuit claiming that the current Oklahoma license plate is a violation of a Methodist minister’s First Amendment rights and a promotion of “pantheism” was dismissed in federal court on January 14.
The lawsuit, Cressman v. Michael C. Thompson, in his official capacity as Secretary of Safety and Security and as the Commissioner of Public Safety for the state of Oklahoma, et al., contends that for Bethany, Oklahoma pastor Keith Cressman to display the “Sacred Rain Arrow” image on the state’s license plate compels him to display an item that is not a part of his Christian beliefs. The image depicted on the plates is of a sculpture created by Fort Sill Apache artist Allan Houser.
U.S. District Court Judge Joe Heaton, however, shot holes through this argument. According to a report from the Tulsa World, Heaton said, “There is nothing about the image that suggests the man is praying or that the arrow he is shooting is sacred…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.”
For the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference—the oldest governing body of the Methodist Church in Oklahoma—this lawsuit has caused both undue stress to its leaders. Not only do they have to increase efforts to educate non-Indians in Oklahoma about Native American spirituality, but they also have to explain to Native Methodist congregations that Cressman’s lawsuit does not reflect the views of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
“This suit that Keith Cressman has initiated has caused me more work and time to explain to the Native community that although [Cressman] belongs to a different [Methodist] conference, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference does not support that or believe that way,” said OIMC superintendent David Wilson, an enrolled Choctaw Nation member.
Wilson said that he “was pleased that the courts did the right thing in dismissing the case.”
In a previous interview with Indian Country Today Media Network on June 20, 2013, Wilson explained that the non-Native Methodist congregations in Oklahoma are part of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and are not a part of the OIMC.
“We consider ourselves the Mother Church of Methodism for this state,” Wilson said. “For us to see another Methodist pastor file this and talk about Native folk being pagan—and this particular piece of art being pagan—that was very troubling for us, considering the long, long history that tribes have had with the Christian Church and in particular for us, the Methodist Church.”
Wilson said that he has a pending meeting with Cressman and that the meeting has been arranged by other Methodist leaders.
The Tulsa World reported that Cressman plans to appeal the decision. Calls placed by ICTMN were not returned by press time.