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17 June 2013

New Controversy with Religious License Plates

I've posted before about religion on license plates. A new license plate in Oklahoma has prompted a Methodist pastor to sue the state for violating his religious liberty. The image on the plate is a reference to a regionally-well-known Chiricahua myth about a warrior who shoots an arrow into the sky that had been blessed by a medicine man to end a drought. The plaintiff claims that he is being forced to promote a "pagan" religion.

There is a great irony in this suit, which makes it both a great test case and illuminating of the issue. If the case succeeds and the courts decide that this is an unreasonable infringement on an individual's religious expression, it will undoubtedly mean that people will challenge the other religious plates, including the "In God We Trust" plates. And here is what makes it illuminating. Theologically conservative religionists who are not Chiricahua have a point here; this is not their religion, and the state should not endorse it in this official capacity; however, it is theologically conservative Christians who support the Christian-themed plates and fail to see why it is offensive to those who do not share their religion. The separation of church and state is a compromise in which I promise not to ask the state to endorse my religion as long as you don't ask the state to endorse your religion. It's very pragmatic and, ultimately, self-interested. (See here for a previous post on that topic.)

I imagine that some will argue--including, likely, Oklahoma in this suit--that the image is primarily historic and not religious in nature in the same way that an image of the Pilgrims on a Massachusetts license plate would be primarily about early-American history and not an endorsement of Calvinist Congregationalism. However, the Chiricahua are an active tribe with many members who still practice the ancient animist religion. Ironically, to argue that the plate is a way to honor the history of Native Americans is to erase their present existence and to denigrate them today.

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