'Head of Christ' Removed from Kansas Public School Wall

statue of Jesus looking down

A picture of Jesus Christ that hung in a hallway of Royster Middle School in Chanute, Kansas, for decades has been taken down after an atheist-backed organization threatened court action if it was not removed.

Coincidentally or not, it was another print of the same painting, “Head of Christ” by Warner Sallman, that prompted a similar threat from the same organization toward another public school district.

A website of Sallman’s work describes the painting as being “by far the most popular” of the artist’s work. Its publishers say the painting has been reproduced as prints more than 500 million times.

But this print, which had been hanging in Royster Middle School longer than anyone in the town of Chanute can remember, was one print too many for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"The Supreme Court has stressed the importance of protecting public school students from these types of messages," Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote in a letter to Chanute Schools Superintendent Richard Proffitt.

"It is illegal for Royster Middle School or any other Chanute public school to post religious images in its hallways, or anywhere else that appears to be school-sponsored. If this picture of Jesus is displayed, as we are told, the District must remove it at once."

Seidel also pointed out the organization that battles what it sees as violations of the constitutional separation of church and state found a print of the same painting in a Jackson City School District building in Jackson, Ohio, in 2013.

The FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio filed suit in that case. The Jackson City Board of Education decided to settle out of court. They removed the “Head of Christ” from the school building and paid $95,000 to the plaintiffs, including legal fees.

Superintendent Proffitt, in his first year on the job in Chanute, buckled immediately, telling students, their parents and other residents he had no option. As far as he was concerned, the FFRF’s First Amendment argument won. No argument was possible.

“We were notified and we responded to stay in compliance,” Proffitt said.

Ryan Jayne, a spokesman for the FFRF, told the Wichita Eagle, “It’s nice to have people who appreciate the law and get things done (and) who follow the law even if it’s likely to be unpopular in the community.”

It is possible to disagree with the part of his sentence about people who appreciate the law, get things done and follow the law. But there is no doubt Jayne hit the nail on the head with the dependent clause that he used to finish the thought.

Proffitt’s decision was definitely unpopular with many people in Chanute.