When people in Chanute talk to me about Jesus, they are usually trying to convince me to spend my sleepy Sunday mornings and 10 percent of my income at some local church. However, this week I engaged in many discussions about Jesus during which no church invitations were offered. During these, I learned that plenty of local people are upset that a painting of Jesus was recently removed from Royster Middle School.  

Evidently, a parent of a student saw this painting on a wall in one of the school’s hallways, took a picture of it, and emailed the photo to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin. This group of rabble-rousing outsiders contacted the school district. The newly-hired superintendent, seeing visions of potential lawsuits dancing through his head, took down the painting.

Jesus and I have had a bit of a long-distance relationship as of late, but I can understand that having a painting in a school that reflects the views and values of most area residents might not seem like a big deal.

However, I also recognize how people who don’t share those particular views and values might have felt about this picture being in a public school. Having Jesus on the wall, at the exclusion of all other religious figures, could send some kids the message that other religions are less worthy of inclusion or acknowledgement. That is not an idea that public schools should be in the business of promoting.

It is difficult for a large group of people to empathize with a small minority, which is why the rule of law sometimes has to step in to protect basic rights. The clear difference between public schools and churches has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court decisions and various other well-publicized legal precedents. All of these suggest that this kind of painting has no place in a government-run public school.

There is a very good reason why Jesus is never mentioned in our Constitution. The government in America is forbidden from establishing a religion, which means that government-run schools should not be displaying art that exclusively endorses the views of an established religion.

I am amazed that no administrators, superintendents, parents, or local attorneys ever thought about all of the court cases and hoopla over religion in schools for the decades that this painting was displayed at Royster. Someone should have recognized that the district was practically begging for a lawsuit. Luckily, the school district made the wise fiscally-conservative decision to take it down now, which likely saved local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and lawsuit settlements.

It’s not like Jesus ever stated a preference in the Gospels for having artistic depictions of Him displayed in schools or other government buildings. He seemed to prefer that people express their faith and beliefs through charitable actions more than by words or pictures. Jesus certainly never advocated that people worry so much about the fate of a painting. He would likely suggest that there were far bigger injustices going on in the world right now that Christians could direct their energies towards trying to correct. 

In the end, this is just about an inanimate work of art. Removing it from a building won’t have any effect at all on Christianity’s popularity in this town, and it certainly won’t harm Jesus.

People in this community should focus on the potential positive side of removing this painting from the school. Perhaps, it could act as a catalyst for concerned parents to either home-school or enroll their children at one of the local religious private schools. People who run those types of academic institutions can freely put up whatever pictures and paintings they want, without worrying about non-Christians being forced to look at or pay for them.

More importantly, taking the painting down casts Chanute as a community and a school district where people of all faiths know they will be welcomed and treated equally. It brings us that much closer to the American ideal of being a place where people from all walks of life and with all kinds of beliefs can unite and find common ground. It seems like that is what Jesus, whose main advice for followers was “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” would ultimately want.

Please send all questions, comments, hate mail, marriage proposals, invitations to have me go door-to-door to recruit people to go to church, or advice on what to do when I inevitably get struck by lightning for writing columns like this one to brian@chanute.com

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