OKLAHOMA CITY — An image on the Oklahoma license plate of a young Apache warrior shooting an arrow skyward doesn’t convey an overtly religious message, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in rejecting the claim of a minister who said the image was an affront to his Christian beliefs.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton dismissed the claim filed against the state by Bethany pastor Keith Cressman.
The image was inspired by the late Chiricahua Apache artist Allan Houser’s “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture, but there is nothing about it that suggests to the casual observer that the man is praying or that the arrow he is shooting is sacred, the judge wrote.
“Viewed by itself, all the disputed image involves is a depiction of a Native American shooting a bow and arrow,” Heaton wrote. “There is nothing about the image that suggests he believes in one god, no god, or several.”
Cressman’s attorney, Nathan Kellum of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Center for Religious Expression, said he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling and that he and Cressman planned to appeal.
“Mr. Cressman does not want to promote the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow’ image ... on his vehicle. It matters not whether the court shares his objection, Mr. Cressman should not be required to convey the state’s message on his personal property against his will and conscience,” Kellmun said in a written statement.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, which represented the state, did not immediately comment on the ruling.
Kellum has said his client isn’t asking the state to get rid of the roughly 2.9 million license plates on the road that feature the image, only that he be given another option for his vehicle without incurring an additional cost.
Oklahoma has more than 200 specialty license plates featuring such things as logos for schools and universities, wildlife, and even one featuring the phrase “In God We Trust,” although each requires an additional fee ranging from about $18 to $35 annually.
The “Sacred Rain Arrow” image was chosen for Oklahoma’s license plate five years ago.
Houser is recognized as one of the foremost sculptors of the 20th century, and the statue was displayed at the Olympic Village during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. It features a warrior shooting the arrow skyward as part of a ritual involving a prayer for rain. The statue is now displayed outside the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
Houser, who died in 1994, would have turned 100 this year, and his works are being displayed at locations across Oklahoma as part of a centennial celebration. Five monumental-sized bronze Houser sculptures are being installed at the state Capitol this week.