Theater Of The Absurd: Va. Preacher Sees Hindu-Themed Painting, Demands Commandments Display

The courts have said time and time again that government buildings cannot display the Ten Commandments or other devotional art in a way that sends a message of endorsement of religion. The government isn’t run according to religious law, nor are the Commandments the basis of our legal system.

The recent decision by a Virginia county government to post the Ten Commandments in a public building simply because a local theater put up a Hindu image is nothing short of puzzling.

The historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., recently unveiled a painting of what appears to be a Hindu deity dancing on a stage as part of a celebration of the theater’s 80th anniversary. The Bristol Herald Courier said the painting is intended to represent multi-culturalism.

D.R. Mullins, who created the mural, which includes traditional theater symbols and a Barter Theatre sign, said he wanted to show “the theater’s global reach and its past.”

Added Mullins, “I wanted to show everybody who comes to Barter we’re not necessarily a regional theatre, we’re world famous.”

He’s right about that. The theater has a long and rich history, having hosted such performers as Gregory Peck and Ernest Borgnine. But I’m not sure that it was a good idea to illustrate its international renown by incorporating a Hindu deity into its promotional artwork . The Hindu faithful might see that as disrespectful.

But that issue aside, nothing about the mural suggests a governmental endorsement of Hinduism. It’s in a theater, not a courthouse. Of course, that doesn’t seem to matter much to one local fundamentalist preacher.

At a Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this week, the Rev. Jerry Eggers of Greendale Chapel demanded the right to post a Decalogue display at the county government center or some other public building.

His reasoning? He claims the Hindu-inflected painting at the theater is infringing on America’s Christian heritage.

“We believe Christians have rights, and fair is fair,” he said, according to the Herald Courier. “Christianity is America’s national heritage and also the heritage of people in Washington County.”

“Christianity is our heritage,” he added. “I think the least we can do is stand for it and I plan to.”

Sadly Eggers isn’t alone. The newspaper said about 300 people showed up for the meeting to advocate for the Commandments display, and the preacher’s appeal was met with applause and “amens.”

The board was apparently swayed by the throng, deciding unanimously to allow the Decalogue posting. Even though he voted for it, board member Joseph Straten noted, correctly, that putting up a Commandments display could expose the county to expensive litigation.

“I find it unorthodox that we are willing to put our county at risk of a lawsuit,” Straten said, according to the Herald Courier.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like anyone else is too concerned with wasting taxpayer money. Eggers was appointed to a committee that will investigate the legal issues surrounding the matter, the newspaper said. It’s not hard to guess what course Eggers will recommend.

This is all rather confounding, though not unusual. The Barter probably didn’t intend to cause a stir when it put up the picture, and it certainly wasn’t trying to promote Hinduism. The theater building is owned by Abingdon city government and it gets some public funding, but the overall operation is conducted by a nonprofit foundation.

That makes for a pretty tenuous claim of governmental advancement of religion. For the county to respond by placing a Decalogue display in a county building is an extreme overreaction and a constitutional mistake.  

It’s bad enough that the county board listened to the ranting of a “Christian nation” advocate. It’s worse that the supervisors then decided to let him help decide whether the Commandments display can legally be posted. That’s irresponsible given the taxpayer money at risk if a lawsuit erupts.

The courts have said time and time again that government buildings cannot display the Ten Commandments or other devotional art in a way that sends a message of endorsement of religion. The government isn’t run according to religious law, nor are the Commandments the basis of our legal system.  

People like Eggers just can’t accept that reality, however, so they look for any opportunity to advance their Religious Right agenda, even turning something as innocuous as a theater mural into a constitutional crisis.