School still life with copyspace on chalkboardWritten by Don Byrd

The small town of Chanute, Kansas is by all accounts a largely Christian community. So, it’s not too surprising that a portrait of Jesus that has been on the wall of Chanute’s middle school “for at least 50 years” has generated no complaints over that time. Until now. 

After receiving a letter from a religious freedom advocacy organization on behalf of a “local community member” demanding its removal, the school district made the right decision and took down the picture.

Religion News Service reports that many who feel a connection to the picture are upset about its removal:

[Chanute Public Schools Superintendent Richard] Proffitt said he has been fending off complaints from around the country since the portrait’s removal from Royster, which has about 400 students.

“I’m sick of this,” said Jack Lynch, 53, who grew up in Chanute and remembers the Christ picture at Royster. “This country was founded on Christian beliefs. In God we trust. Now people want to come in and change all that. If they don’t like it let them leave.”

It may make Jack ill, but removing the picture is the right thing to do. Public schools serve the entire community and should feel equally welcoming to all, regardless of a parent or student’s religious faith, or lack thereof. What message would that prominently displayed picture send a Jewish family whose middle-schooler attends that school?

But, beyond that, removing the picture is also the right decision for Christians’ religious freedom. 

Partnering with government institutions to promote Christ undermines the voluntary act of personal conscience necessary for true and vital Christian faith. Why would Jesus need or want the government’s help in promoting His message of love, grace, and redemption? Why compromise soul freedom with even subtle coercion?

Even if neither religious arguments nor empathy for religious minorities work for you, there is one other practical consideration: such a display is unconstitutional. Insisting on keeping it on the wall in its current context would not be upheld and would likely be a costly loss in terms of attorney fees.

I appreciate and recommend highly the reporting of Dion Lefler of the Wichita Eagle on this point. Rather than merely printing the grievances of advocates on either side of the issue, Dion went to constitutional law experts for their opinions on this dispute. They also provided a more comprehensive explanation of how this complex area of the law works in a public school setting.

Kudos to you, Dion, for your informative reporting!