Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jesus Picture Loses in Religious Freedom Fight

Two years ago, Jackson City superintendent of schools Phil Howard was determined to keep a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall of a local middle school.   After all, he noted angrily, it had been there for 66 years.  

"I'm certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wisconsin who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down," Howard barked at a television station.

To him, the picture had “historic significance.”

This week, the picture was removed.

Historic significance has no standing when competing against religious freedom.  To someone like Howard, that’s the freedom to impose his faith on others.  To the courts, the opposite is true.

The Warner Sallman print, titled “the Head of Christ” came off the wall of Royster Middle School with little fanfare after the school’s legal counsel agreed its presence violated the principle of separation of church and state.

"I conferred with legal counsel and both of them told me to be in compliance with state and federal law that we had to have it removed," Chanute Public Schools Superintendent Richard Proffitt said in a published report.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Wisconsin-based organization that pushed the case, pointed out that courts have been clear: Religious symbols don't belong in public schools.

Does it matter?

Absolutely, particularly considering the statements of Republican presidential candidates who want to impose their religious views on the rest of us.

Jeb Bush,a convert to Catholicism who is actually the front-runner despite his current malaise, noted that religion informs his actions.  He pushed for new abortion restrictions during his reign of error as governor of Florida, highlighted by his efforts to keep a dead woman in a vegetative state for 15 years on life support. When Terry Schiavo’s husband wanted her feeding tubes removed, in accordance to the woman’s expressed wishes, Bush ordered the tubes reinserted only to be overruled by a federal court.

Ohio Governor John Kasich announced his candidacy by claiming he has a “calling” and by citing Bible verses.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, “I’m blessed to receive a word from God every day” through the Bible. “We can turn our country around, but only if the body of Christ rises up,” he claimed.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said God doesn’t give him a to-do list, but He “calls me to live by His will.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio said, “Faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.”

“No rights are given to you by government. All our rights are given to you by God,” insisted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Mike Huckaby added, “Spiritual convictions should certainly be reflected in one’s worldview, approaches to problems and perspective.”

In answer to a question, surgeon Ben Carson couldn’t decide if as president he would be sworn to uphold the Constitution or the Bible.

Here’s the response to all of them:  American culture has no religion.  No one in this country, of any faith, can be forced to participate in the belief system of someone else.  That is the basic tenet of this country and the golden aspect that separates it from any other.

One more thing to think about: according to studies, only 34 percent of registered Republicans today can be classified as "highly religious Protestant Republicans.”

That should create an entirely different picture for candidates chasing the ever-shrinking religious right vote.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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