A picture of Jesus hangs at a public middle school for decades.
An advocacy group complains.
The superintendent orders the portrait taken down.
And suddenly, a furor in small Kansas town makes national headlines. That's no surprise, really.
But I have a journalistic question.
First, though, let's check out the lede from Reuters:
Public school officials in the small Kansas town of Chanute are trying to find a new home for a portrait of Jesus Christ after a civil liberties group demanded its removal from the town's middle school.
Local churches and other groups are offering to house the portrait, which had hung in the school since at least the 1950s, and community leaders have been working to defuse anger over its removal.
The district's new superintendent ordered it taken down Thursday from Royster Middle School after the Freedom From Religion Foundation notified him that the display in a public school amounted to an "egregious violation of the First Amendment."
"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," said Chanute Public Schools Superintendent Richard Proffitt.
Proffitt said he has been fending off complaints from around the country since the portrait's removal from Royster, which has about 400 students.
From there, Reuters quotes an upset resident who says America was founded on Christian beliefs, and those who don't like it should leave.
Later, the wire service quotes a church-state separation advocate who claims non-Christians who speak out face a backlash.
Both the resident and the advocate are totally appropriate and relevant sources. Nice job, Reuters.
But let's get back to my journalistic question. Here is it: What does the law say?
The superintendent references state and federal law, but Reuters fails to elaborate on the legal reasoning.
The Eagle story is actually pretty nice (much better than the Reuters version). But again, the Kansas newspaper neglects (in this story) to delve into the actual legal reasoning — the "why" behind the superintendent's decision.
However, in putting together this post, I happened to visit the Eagle's home page. Talk about perfect timing.
To my delight, this is the lead headline on that website as I type this:
Kansas experts back Chanute decision to remove Jesus picture
I can't resist copying and pasting a big chunk of the meaty lede on that story:
Three of the state’s top experts in constitutional law say the Chanute school district made the right call when it took down a portrait of Jesus that had hung in the town’s middle school for decades, but that doesn’t mean religion has to be banished from public schools.
Law professors Bill Rich and Jeff Jackson from Washburn University and Richard Levy from the University of Kansas said the picture almost certainly violated the first part of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“That (Chanute) display strikes me as a fairly clear violation of the establishment clause,” Levy said.
Acting on advice of its attorney, the district removed the picture – a print of artist Walter Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ” – from a hallway at Royster Middle School where it had hung for at least 50 years, Superintendent Richard Proffitt said. He said a resident apparently snapped a picture of the picture during a back-to-school open house and sent it to the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, which demanded the picture be taken down.
The decision wasn’t popular with residents of Chanute, an overwhelmingly Christian community in southeast Kansas with 9,200 people and 30 churches. They argue that it’s been a fixture in the school for decades and nobody ever complained before.
While there is some leeway in the law for historical or cultural displays of religious elements, longevity alone doesn’t make it legally acceptable because there’s pressure on people not to complain, Levy said.
Kudos to whoever at the Wichita Eagle read my mind and decided to answer my question.