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A federal judge in Kansas ruled a university’s prominent display of a sculpture that mocks the Catholic faith did not violate the Constitution.
Washburn University’s sculpture, entitled “Holier than Thou,” depicts a Roman Catholic bishop with a grotesque facial expression wearing a miter that resembles a phallus. The Topeka school’s Campus Beautification Committee selected the display to help fulfill its goal of having “one of the most beautiful campuses in Kansas.”
After refusing to act on complaints brought by numerous Catholics, including the archbishop of Kansas City, a lawsuit was filed by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center.
Archbishop James P. Keleher said the statue made “a mockery of the teaching of our faith and of the authority of our church.”
The university’s president, Jerry Farley, defended the display as a fulfillment of the purpose of art, “to engage us intellectually and emotionally.”
The case against the university was brought on behalf of a veteran professor at the school, Thomas O’Connor, and a senior student, Andrew Strobl, who both are devout Catholics.
The lawsuit alleged Washburn’s display of the sculpture conveyed the impermissible state-sponsored message of hostility toward the Catholic faith in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
District Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber ruled Feb. 26 the university had a secular purpose for displaying the sculpture because it “functions to aesthetically enhance Washburn’s campus” and “broaden the educational experiences [and] increase the intellectual capacities of Washburn’s students.”
The judge concluded the presence of “Holier than Thou” on the campus would not “cause a reasonable observer to believe that [Washburn] endorsed hostility towards the Catholic religion.”
“This is a very disappointing decision.,” said Robert Muise, the Law Center attorney handling the case. “We brought this lawsuit because it was the right thing to do, and we intend to appeal the judge’s decision because it is the right thing to do. Catholics will not remain silent while their faith is being publicly ridiculed by a government institution.”
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Law Center, said this decision and several others by federal judges recently demonstrate a double standard in application of the Establishment Clause.
“The Ten Commandments and the Christian Nativity scene are out, but an anti-Catholic display of a bishop wearing a miter that resembles a phallus is permissible because it allegedly enhances aesthetics,” he said. “Apparently, the religion clauses protect atheists but afford no comparable protection for Christians. This disturbing trend in our federal courts must be reversed.”
An appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is expected.