Written by Don Byrd

Oklahoma license plates featuring a Native American sculpture may amount to an inappropriate state endorsement of religion, according to a 10th Circuit decision, overturning a trial court’s dismissal of the complaint. The plaintiff, Keith Cressman, is a Christian who argues the requirement to display the image constitutes a violation of his First Amendment rights. The state will not allow him to cover the image, and charges an additional fee for any other plate.

The lower court threw out Mr. Cressman’s complaint without allowing discovery, finding that the image is not perceived by others as a specific message. The Appeals Court disagreed that the court could make that determination without allowing the discovery process to go forward. From the opinion (pdf):

Mr. Cressman has plausibly alleged that the image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message that others would likely understand and therefore constitutes symbolic speech that qualifies for First Amendment protection. In addition, he has plausibly alleged that he is compelled to speak because the image conveys a religious/ideological message, covering up the image poses a threat of prosecution, and his only alternative to displaying the image is to pay additional fees for specialty license plates that do not contain the image. The allegations in his complaint therefore plausibly allege a compelled speech claim…

The case goes back to the trial court where issues of discovery and preliminary injunction will be determined.