I was on vacation in South Dakota last week with my family. We visited Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and, yes, Wall Drug.
Even when I’m traveling, I keep an eye open for news about church-state separation. I always read the local newspaper. (Yep, the ones actually made of paper. I know, I’m a dinosaur.) Sure enough, while perusing the Rapid City Journal over breakfast one morning, I came across this interesting story.
It seems that a real estate magnate in Spearfish wants to erect a giant statue of Jesus on a hilltop that overlooks the city.
There is just one problem: It would be on city-owned land.
Rand Williams, a local businessman, told the Spearfish City Council that he would like to explore building a Jesus statue similar to the 125-foot-tall “Christ the Redeemer” effigy in Rio de Janeiro.
Williams says he’d like to erect it on a two-acre plot of land owned by the city and has requested a public hearing on the matter. He says he’ll contribute some of his own money to the project and form a non-profit group to raise the rest of the funds.
City officials seem interested in the project.
“The issue is not a public hearing item, but the city council is willing to participate in a public forum or discussion as offered by Mr. Williams,” Spearfish City Administrator Joe Neeb told the Journal. “They appreciate the efforts of those who wish to keep Spearfish the great community it is.”
But the newspaper also noted that during a previous council meeting “some council members raised concerns about whether a Christ statue on city land might violate the separation of church and state.”
Gee, do you think?
This is a bad idea. Erecting a 35-foot-tall statue of Jesus on city-owned land would definitely violate the separation of church and state. The city might as well erect an enormous sign reading, “Please sue us now!”
Williams seems to be grasping for a secular rationale to move the project forward. He told one newspaper, “Setting aside the divinity question and the religious aspects, this man had more impact on this world than any man that has ever lived.”
I appreciate the try, but it won’t work. Look, the standard in these cases is simple. It boils down to what a reasonable observer concludes upon seeing the display. And a reasonable observer, seeing a 35-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ, isn’t likely to say, “Oh, look! It’s a statue of an influential historical figure!” He or she would recognize the structure as a depiction of the founder of the Christian faith.
That’s why that statue can’t go on city-owned land. It’s bound to spark a lawsuit. Plus, it’s simply inappropriate. Spearfish is a city of more than 10,000 people. I’m sure that not all of them are Christians.
That doesn’t mean Williams is out of options. He can erect the statue on private land or even explore purchasing the parcel from the city – provided that Spearfish officials make it available in a fair auction that allows others to participate as well.
The bottom line is that the city of Spearfish cannot legally aid and abet a wholly devotional display like this. If the council holds a meeting about the matter, it should make that clear.
There are a lot of great attractions in South Dakota – and a fair amount of roadside kitsch. If Williams wants to add a large Jesus statue to the state’s tourist draws he is free to do that – on his own dime and without help from the government.