The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal this week involving a constitutional challenge to an anti-Catholic statue. The statue, located on the campus of Washburn University in Kansas, depicts a Catholic bishop with a grotesque facial expression wearing a miter that resembles a phallus.
The statue is called “Holier than Thou” and includes a plaque with a derisive statement about the sacrament of reconciliation. It first appeared on campus in September 2003. Washburn is a public university, supported by tax dollars.
Many prominent Catholics criticized the statue, including Archbishop James Keleher of Kansas City, the Catholic League, the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocesan Conference of Catholic Women. The bishop wrote an open letter to the university president strongly urging the school to remove the offensive statue.
However, the university refused, defending the display as art that has the purpose of engaging the community intellectually and emotionally.
“Incredibly, during the course of this litigation, university officials admitted that they would never permit an anti-Jewish, anti-black, or anti-gay/lesbian statue on campus,” said Robert Muise, the Thomas More Law Center attorney who handled this case.
The center filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Washburn professor and a student, both devout Catholics. The lawsuit alleged that the statue conveys the state-sponsored message of hostility toward the Catholic faith in violation of the Establishment Clause.
The case was dismissed by the federal district judge who ruled that Washburn had a secular purpose for displaying this sculpture because “[i]t functions to aesthetically enhance Washburn’s campus[,] broaden the educational experiences [and] increase the intellectual capacities of Washburn’s students.”
The judge concluded that the statue would not “cause a reasonable observer to believe that [Washburn] endorsed hostility towards the Catholic religion.”
In July 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The law center asked the Supreme Court to revisit its inconsistent Establishment Clause jurisprudence, but to no avail.
“The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear this case is disappointing, and it reaffirms the double standard and hypocrisy spawned by the current Establishment Clause jurisprudence,” said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel for center in a statement.
“Despite giving lip service to the concept of neutrality towards religion, many federal court decisions have in fact bristled with hostility to all things religious, especially those that are Christian,” he continued. “This double standard is also applied by our nation’s public universities, which have refused to allow school newspapers to show the recent controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed because it was insulting to Muslims.”