Indian Methodist Minister Concerned Over Oklahoma License Plate Lawsuit

The decision June 12 to allow a lawsuit claiming that purchasing a Native-themed license plate infringes on Christian beliefs is troubling to some.

Fort Sill Apache artist Allan Houser's works are featured in art galleries all over the world, with many of his paintings and sculptures on display in Oklahoma, the state of his birth. When the state of Oklahoma selected his "Sacred Rain Arrow" sculpture for an image on their official license plates in 2008, no one had any idea that it would be the subject of a lawsuit over the separation of church and state. (Related story: Native-Themed License Plate Could Allegedly Promote Pantheism)

The decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals allows Bethany, Oklahoma Methodist minister Keith Cressman proceed with his lawsuit, claiming that purchasing the license plate infringes on his Christian beliefs. While this lawsuit has angered many within Oklahoma, it is especially troubling for David Wilson, Choctaw tribal member and the conference superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. The OIMC serves as the governing body of Methodist churches in Oklahoma with predominantly Native congregations. According to Wilson, the roots of the Methodist Church in Oklahoma can be traced back to the times of the forced removal of Southeastern tribes to Indian Territory in the 1830s.

"We consider ourselves the Mother Church of Methodism for this state," said Wilson. "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 other Methodist ministers have been calling him to express their support to the OIMC.

"People have called me to express their dismay, disappointment and apologies," said Wilson. "They said, 'We know we can't apologize for what one person did. Just know that the majority of us do not have anything to do with that or feel that way.' I appreciated those calls."

Wilson's ministry work includes teaching other ministers about Native American culture, which includes visits of tribal dances and ceremonies such as cedarings. He said Cressman could benefit from one of his courses.

"I would implore him to become better educated about Native American people and about our history and religions and, in particular, our long-standing relationship with the Christian Church," Wilson said.