Washburn University, a public university in Kansas, is displaying an anti-Catholic sculpture. The sculpture apparently “depicts a Catholic bishop with a grotesque facial expression wearing a phallus on his head that is shaped like a bishop’s miter” (a photo is visible in this news story, and apparently it’s not clear whether any phallic connection was intentional), and the caption says “The artist says, ‘I was brought up Catholic. I remember being 7 and going into the dark confessional booth for the first time. I knelt down, and my face was only inches from the screen that separated me and the one who had the power to condemn me for my evil ways. I was scared to death, for on the other side of the screen was the persona you see before you.'” The sculpture was apparently selected by “artists and art teachers representing Washburn’s Campus Beautification Committee” for display — this isn’t some open forum where anyone can put up a sculpture — and, as best I can tell, it isn’t an obvious part of any broader display (as a painting might be in a museum).
The Thomas More Law Center is suing Washburn on the grounds that the display by a government-run university of an anti-Catholic sculpture constitutes disapproval of religion. Endorsement of religion (religion generally or a specific religion in particular), the Supreme Court has held, violates the Establishment Clause; but whenever the Court has said this, it has usually also said that disapproval of religion would be equally unconstitutional. (See here for citations.) Sounds like a pretty strong argument to me.
If Washburn were allowing the sculpture as part of an open forum (anyone can put up a sculpture for a week), then people who were familiar with the open forum would realize that Washburn isn’t endorsing the sculpture. If the sculpture were a work by a famous artist, or presented as part of an exhibition of art of a certain era, then again people would probably perceive that Washburn is just displaying the work for its historical or artistic importance (just as a museum exhibition of 16th-century Italian art wouldn’t be seen as endorsing Christianity just because many of the great paintings of the time were on Christian themes). But as it stands, an observer seeing the sculpture, and knowing that it was specially selected for display by the University, would perceive it as the University’s approval of an anti-religious message.
I’m not sure that such lawsuits should succeed: It’s not clear to me that courts should decide what works even a public university may display, and deciding what constitutes endorsement or disapproval is often very hard, especially when it comes to art (though in this case the message of disapproval seems pretty clear). But once the Court has started doing this as to art that endorses religion, there’s a pretty strong case that courts should do the same as to art that disapproves of religion. It will be interesting to see how all this comes out.
If anyone knows more of the story behind the sculpture, the artist, and the decision to put it up, I’d love to hear it.
UPDATE: Miter? Phallus? Both? Readers are split — you be the judge; see here for a picture. In any case, even without the phallic link, the sculpture coupled with the title and the caption seems pretty anti-Catholic to me.