The sculpture of a Catholic bishop with a grotesque facial expression and wearing a miter in the shape of a phallus is the focus of the federal civil rights lawsuit against Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas..- A federal court is expected to decide next week whether a state-run university must remove an anti-Catholic sculpture from campus grounds.
The suit was filed by the Thomas More Law Center on behalf of two Catholic members of the university community – Thomas O'Connor, a professor for the last 29 years, and Andrew Strobl, a student and president of the Catholic Campus Center.
The sculpture, called “Holier than Thou”, was put on display Sept. 20 in front of the student union, one of the most prominent sites on campus.
The suit alleges that the display is hostile toward Catholics, mocks Catholic religious beliefs and is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The Law Center is asking the court to order university officials to remove the sculpture.
"For years atheists, with the help of the ACLU, have used the federal courts to remove the Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes from the public square, claiming that these passive symbols, which have significant historical and cultural importance for our nation, somehow create an establishment of religion,” said Robert Muise, the Law Center attorney handling the case.
“Here, in contrast, we have government officials prominently displaying an overtly hostile and offensive symbol of anti-Catholicism,” he continued. “How will our federal courts respond to this situation? Does our Constitution protect Catholics as much as it protects atheists? We will soon find out."
Several Catholic leaders have objected to the sculpture, including William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and Archbishop James Keleher of Kansas City.
The archbishop wrote an open letter to Washburn University president Jerry Farley Oct. 3, expressing his disappointment and concern for the “many Catholic students who see their faith ridiculed and they themselves embarrassed.” He strongly urged the university to remove the sculpture.
The Kansas State Knights of Columbus, the Archdiocesan Conference of Catholic Women, and the university’s Catholic Campus Center joined the archbishop in urging university officials to remove the sculpture but the university voted Oct. 18 to keep the display.
According to Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Law Center, this situation “is another example of universities across the country enforcing a double standard. They censor as ‘hate speech’ any religious expressions on campus they consider politically incorrect. Yet, they sponsor and support the most offensive expression toward Christians."
The court has scheduled a hearing on the Law Center's motion for a restraining order for Jan. 13.