A painting in a public elementary school in Oklahoma has sparked a debate between school officials and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The painting in question is Faith in America, a painting by Donald Zolan featuring two young children kneeling with their hands clasped in prayer as an American flag hangs in the background. The painting has been hanging in the school’s office for 18 years. FFRF protested the painting after the parents of a child at the school wrote to them with a complaint.
In their initial letter, FFRF wrote that the poster is a clear endorsement of religion, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause. Attorney Anthony Childers, who wrote back on behalf of the school district, denied that claim.
“We cannot agree that the poster displayed in the office is a per se violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution,” attorney Anthony Childers wrote. ”Though, as you’ve pointed out, the title given to the artwork by the original artist is labeled ‘Faith in America,’ there is no text displayed with the poster which imputes the artist’s intent, theme, or title.”
As you’d expect, FFRF shot a letter back rejecting that rationale. Staff attorney Andrew Seidel writes that the poster is clearly religious.
“No court would seriously entertain an argument that an image of two elementary aged children, their hands clasped in prayer, one’s eyes lifted to heaven, entitled “Faith in America” is not religious,” Seidel writes.
Seidel then states that the Establishment Clause doesn’t only refer to endorsing one form of religion over another, but also forbids government entities from endorsing religion over non-religion. Seidel included the following excerpt of the Supreme Court ruling from Wallace v. Jaffree in his letter:
“At one time it was thought that [the freedom of conscience] merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism,” the ruling states. “But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”
The school district’s attorney wrote that the image “does not create coercive pressure on students who may see the image.” The FFRF rejects that claim, too, and said past Supreme Court rulings assume coercion in virtually any school context.
Both sides say they want to resolve the matter amicably and without a lengthy legal battle, but also remain unwilling to waver from their respective positions.