CHANUTE – Erika Semey went to Royster Middle School 10 years ago, every day passing a picture of Jesus that hung in the public-school hallway for decades until it was taken down this past week.
The print of Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” was removed from the wall at Royster Middle School on Thursday, following a complaint from a national church-state separation group.
“Oh man, it’s getting bad,” Semey said. “That’s what’s wrong with this world. Not enough people have Christ in their lives.”
That’s a commonly held opinion in this southeast Kansas town of 9,200 people and 30 churches.
The Chanute school district removed the picture after getting a complaint from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, the school superintendent said Friday.
Richard Proffitt, who just started his first school year as Chanute superintendent, said the picture was taken down after the district’s lawyer advised that the school could not legally display it.
“We were notified and we responded to stay in compliance,” Proffitt said.
The portrait that hung in the middle-school hallway is the most famous work done by Sallman, an evangelical Christian artist who first drew it in charcoal in 1924 as a cover illustration for a religious pamphlet.
Sallman later reproduced the work in color, and that version, like the one that hung at Royster Middle School, sold millions of copies starting in the 1940s, according to the website www.warnersallman.com.
Proffitt said an employee took the picture to a secured location while the district decides what to do with it.
“It’s being stored in a place where it’s not visible,” Proffitt said.
Proffitt said Friday he would contact the local newspaper and use district channels to send a message to patrons explaining the situation.
“I took tours of the schools when I came in; there was a lot to take in,” he said. “If I did see it there, I’d forgotten about it.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national organization dedicated to the principle of separation of church and state.
Ryan Jayne, a spokesman for the foundation’s legal department, said he thinks it’s “wonderful” that the district responded the way it did and as quickly as it did.
“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,” Jayne said.
Jayne said it was the second time the foundation has worked with Proffitt to resolve a complaint of religion in the schools.
Last year, the foundation filed a complaint with another Kansas district – the Southeast of Saline school district – where Proffitt was superintendent, after a teacher allowed a representative of Gideons International to speak in his class and hand out Bibles to the students.
The Gideons, an evangelical society, are best known for free distribution of Bibles to hotels and elsewhere.
Proffitt said he investigated and put a stop to the Bible distribution on campus, also for legal reasons.
He said he doesn’t know how long the Jesus portrait has hung at the Chanute middle school.
“I do know it’s been decades,” he said. “Some people who went through the system before – 30 to 40 years ago – knew it was hanging in the hallway back then. It was kind of a permanent fixture, if you will.”
The foundation has been active in seeking the removal of religious symbols from public facilities across the country and participated in a lawsuit that removed the same Jesus picture from a school in Jackson, Ohio, according to a written statement from the organization.
In the Ohio case, the foundation joined with the ACLU in a lawsuit resulting in a settlement in which the school district agreed to remove the picture and paid $95,000 for costs and legal fees, the statement said.
Proffitt said he thinks a visitor to a recent back-to-school open house took a snapshot of the picture at Royster and sent it to the foundation. He said that person didn’t contact him or the middle school administrator.
Proffitt said he expects to take some heat over the decision.
“Any time you have a rural community (that is) strongly faith based, it will be an issue for many patrons,” he said.
Beyond disappointment, many people in Chanute see removing the picture as symbolic of a moral decay in the United States.
Cody Busby, a 22-year-old fur trapper in Chanute, said he remembered the picture from when he was a “church kid” in middle school and he thinks it belongs there.
“Nobody else in the school seemed to be bothered by it,” he said. “There were only one or two evolution kids and they didn’t seem to be bothered by it.
“With all the bullying that goes on in schools and how all the kids divide up into cliques, I think Jesus being there didn’t hurt a thing.”
Nobody here seems to be old enough to remember when the picture went up. It was there in 1966 when Vicki Gurney, a waitress at the Grain Bin diner, started school at what was then Royster Junior High.
Gurney said she thinks taking the picture down is unpatriotic. “This is still the United States, under God indivisible,” she said.
Non-Christian students were always allowed to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance or skip the annual Christmas movie for religious reasons, said Samantha Barnhart, another Royster alumna who also works at the cafe.
“If you have the right to not participate, we have the right to keep our picture up,” she said. “Just don’t look at it.”
Jayne said such sentiments are exactly why the foundation wanted the picture taken down.
The opposite of being unpatriotic, removing the picture honors the constitutional prohibition on government-established religion, he said.
“We don’t consider any constitutional violation to be petty and not worth going after,” he said.
In addition, Jayne said government display of religious art in a small town with deeply Christian roots tends to isolate and marginalize the minority that practices a different religion or no religion at all.
“They are extremely likely to remain political outsiders,” he said.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.