A conservative Oklahoma City suburb with a history of trying to incorporate religious art into public spaces has approved city funds to help pay for a statue of Jesus Christ to be placed downtown for Christmas, likely leading to another court fight.
The Edmond Visual Arts Commission last month approved $3,900 to help pay for the 26-inch-tall bronze statue titled "Come Unto Me." It will be placed in front of a downtown shop called Sacred Heart Catholic Gifts.
The vote was 6-2 with one member abstaining.
Just last year, the arts commission backed down from a decision to use public funds on a $17,500 statue of Moses at Edmond's First Christian Church. After public outcry, the commission unanimously agreed to allow private donors to buy the city's stake in the statue.
A decade ago, the city about 10 miles north of Oklahoma City, was forced to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees after losing a court battle to keep a cross on its city seal.
"This is the third major unconstitutional effort they've engaged in recent years," said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It's a little surprising, because normally people pause to take a breath before they violate the Constitution again."
June Cartwright, the chair of the commission and who supported funding the latest statue, said the sculpture was viewed simply as a piece of art and not a religious endorsement.
"It is a piece of artwork," Cartwright said. "It doesn't state that it is specifically Jesus. It is whatever you perceive it to be."
The Web site of the work's artist, Rosalind Cook, described the image as depicting Jesus with three children, one cradled in his arm. "Every major line leads to the face of Christ who is the focal point and apex of the sculpture," the site says.
Karen Morton, who owns the Sacred Heart shop and who privately raised the other $3,900 of the $7,800 sculpture's price tag, said she hasn't received any complaints or negative comments about the decision. "I don't see a problem with it. I'm not a church," she said.
But Lynn said using public funds on the project is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.
"You cannot promote what is obviously a very specific religious image using tax dollars," Lynn said. "The city lawyers should have stopped this. This isn't even close to the line. This is way over it."
Edmond's city attorney, Stephen Murdock, said, "I think there are differences of opinions regarding that issue." He declined to say what his recommendations were to the commission.
A message left Tuesday with Cook was not returned. Her sculptures - some religious and some secular - have been placed in churches, libraries, schools, hospitals and private and public businesses from Pennsylvania to Hawaii.
Michael Salem, an attorney who successfully challenged Edmond on its use of a cross on the city seal, said the issue is more one of fairness than being anti-religion.
"It's a slippery slope that the city wanders into when it does this," Salem said. "Once they have set down that path, this means that if an application is made by some other group that wants to put some kind of religious object up in front of their business, then the city could be obligated or required to pay for it also."
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Americans United for Separation of Church and State: http://www.au.org© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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