The ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are suing Jackson City Middle School over a portrait entitled “The Head of Christ,” displayed in the hallway of the Ohio public school. The Liberty Institute has weighed in on the side of the school district to help it craft its legal argument. What we will see in court is the ridiculous spectacle: the atheists and civil libertarians insisting upon the removal of the portrait because of the separation of Church and State via the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment, and the Christian conservatives insisting upon its retention because it is an expression of “Free Speech” granted in the very same First Amendment.
The portrait has been hanging in that hallway of that school for 66 years. Things were a bit different back then.
Return with me now to yesteryear, when I wore saddle shoes and crinoline petticoats beneath my school dresses, to the fourth grade classroom in McLean, VA, which I entered as a new student when we moved to Washington, DC, from Chicago. “Mommy!” I exclaimed, scandalized, when I returned from my first full day at the new school, “They say the Lord’s Prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance!”
My mother, FDR Democrat though she was, had taught me to behave well in public, so she wasn’t concerned that I’d embarrassed her with an outburst. She simply said, “Well, if they do, then you’ll just have to respect their beliefs like we always respect other people’s beliefs.” And that was that.
If Jackson Middle School had hung “The Head of Christ” just last week, this case might have a different slant to it. But the picture is something like “In God We Trust” on our currency or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. We see references to the Ten Commandments in courtrooms all over the country because much of legal tradition is sourced in Mosaic Law. All this is part of the landscape, part of the background fabric of our lives, and it is simply not worth the controversy any longer.
If the parents of the students at Jackson Middle School are unhappy with anything at the school or with decisions made by the school board, they know the remedy: new elections and activism at PTO/PTA.
Atheists and agnostics who feel persecuted or otherwise insulted by portrayals of religious figures in public places need to get over it. ( Or stop visiting art museums, one or the other.)
Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, Baha’is, Moslems, Jews, Zoroastrians, Shintos, Roman Catholics or pagans (did I miss anybody?) who are upset with the self-centered nature and hubris of American evangelical Christians have every right to call them out when they attempt to write their creed into our laws. We are, fortunately, protective of everyone’s religious traditions in the United States — the Establishment Clause, remember?
That means that our greatest and most precious freedom is our freedom to believe what we will, as long as we do not impose our beliefs upon unwilling others.