A Kentucky county courthouse may become the scene of a new First Amendment battle.
The Breathitt County Courthouse has displayed a charcoal sketch of Jesus since 1981, and Judge-Executive John Lester Smith says it’s not coming down – despite a recent letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
“‘Til a federal judge tells me otherwise, I intend for it to be as it is,” Smith told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The official – who’s not really a judge, by the way, more like a county executive – has not been idle. He has devised what he apparently believes is a loophole around the First Amendment: Jesus no longer hangs alone in Breathitt. Thanks to Smith, the Lamb of God now enjoys the esteemed company of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, Snow White, Pinocchio and that famous saint, Mr. Magoo.
Smith has also commissioned a number of landscapes from local articles, and told the Herald-Leader his only rule for displayed art is that it can be neither violent nor pornographic. Turning his courthouse into a gallery, he says, is evidence that there’s a secular rationale to keeping Jesus where he is.
“We’re not leaving it hanging there for religious beliefs,” he said of the portrait.
The FFRF is not convinced.
Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the organization, told the paper that the judge’s “solution” doesn’t mitigate the fact that the county originally hung the picture for sectarian reasons. “It’s a sham solution to save a religious painting,” she said.
The FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union have requested documents from the county regarding the portrait’s origins. Neither organization has announced an intention to sue yet.
If they can prove the county hung the portrait for explicitly religious reasons, they may have a case. There are some other factors that distinguish Jesus from his secular companions; a caption on the portrait reads “In your place what would Jesus do” and adds that it is dedicated to the “People of Breathitt County” and “is not to be removed.” That caption does lend some credence to the argument that the portrait’s depiction of Jesus is meant to represent some endorsement of Christianity.
Local supporters of the portrait seem to believe it is, too. Tom Lorimer, a dean at Kentucky Mountain Bible College, called the FFRF’s complaint “offensive.”
“It [the portrait] is an expression of the basic faith here in the county of the people who live here,” he said.
But that’s not precisely true. According to Markert, the FFRF already has a potential plaintiff in the county. Clearly, a portrait of Jesus does not adequately represent this individual’s beliefs, or else they wouldn’t have complained about its presence.
And that’s the problem with displays like this one. There are religious minorities even in deeply Christian areas like Breathitt County, and Christian displays automatically exclude them. It’s also more than a bit offensive for Smith to imply that he’s resolved the problem of exclusion by hanging pictures of Rachel Maddow or Mr. Magoo. Nobody worships either. And although Smith told the Herald-Leader he’d welcome portraits of other deities, he has forced religious minorities to shoulder the burden of making sure they’re represented.
That’s unfair. And it may very well be unconstitutional.