Picture of Jesus Sparks Controversy at Middle School

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
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Despite protests, a print of the painting “Head of Christ” was removed from the wall of a public Kansas school after the Freedom From Religion Foundation warned that it was “an egregious violation of the First Amendment.” (Photo: Freedom From Religion Foundation)

A Kansas middle school has removed a long-hanging portrait of Jesus from its hallway after receiving a legal warning from the non-profit Freedom From Religion Foundation — a move that’s prompted outcry from many religious residents of the small town, Chanute.

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“Some think we should fight it all the way, but it would take a lot of precious resources away from where we need them very badly right now,” Richard Proffitt, Chanute superintendent of schools, tells Yahoo Parenting. He adds that he officially has “no opinion,” and that “the vast majority of our patrons understand we were acting upon the advice of legal counsel to stay within state and federal laws.”

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Still others have been calling and emailing the district to share their opinions, and “none of them are positive,” he says. Speaking to the Wichita Eagle about the controversy, for example, a middle school alumnus named Erika Semey noted, “That’s what’s wrong with this world. Not enough people have Christ in their lives.” Yet another graduate, Cody Busby, recalled, “Nobody else in the school seemed to be bothered by it. There were only one or two evolution kids and they didn’t seem to be bothered by it.”

But at least one person was unhappy with the Christian image being in the public Royster Middle School, where classes started on Aug. 12 — Proffitt’s first day on the job as superintendent in Chanute. A week later, that unnamed individual snapped a photo of the portrait — a print of the painting, “Head of Christ,” by evangelical commercial artist Warner Sallman — while attending an open house at the school. That person then sent the photo to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has an aim to ensure that governmental agencies respect the separation of church and state. In response, the organization contacted the school district in writing, demanding that the portrait be removed for being “an egregious violation of the First Amendment,” according to a news release on the FFRF’s website.

Other recent FFRF cases against schools have involved prayer at football games in Kentucky, as well as Christian chaplains in college football programs. In this case, since Jesus was the “lord and savior” of the Christian religion, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel explains to Yahoo Parenting, his portrait hanging in a school hallway was “very clearly a governmental endorsement of religion — with a captive audience of school children.” Seidel notes that, in this case, the district responded immediately by taking the portrait down.

“We’re thrilled that the superintendent has done the right thing,” he says.

Not so in Ohio, Seidel adds, where the exact same painting was at issue in the Jackson City School District in 2013. That’s when FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio filed a lawsuit against the district. Eventually, the school settled the suit, agreeing to permanently remove the Jesus portrait and pay nearly $100,000, including attorney’s fees.

Seidel says that the FFRF is not revealing the identity of the complainant, as “the people who make these complaints often are subject to serious retribution.” He points, for example, to the recent case of a 16-year-old challenging school prayer in Rhode Island, and being met with threats of rape and physical assault to the point of her needing a police escort just to go to school. “So we work really hard to keep it confidential,” he says, “and in this case are just saying it was a ‘district family.’”

As for the removed Jesus portrait, which has likely hung on the school’s wall since the 1950s, Proffitt says, “As far as I know, it’s going to stay down.” For now it’s being stored off-site in an “undisclosed location” while administrators try to trace its origins at the school. “If it was a donation or a memorial, we’d want to contact the family for the decision of what will be done with it,” he says. “I think that would be the right thing to do.”

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