Does church and state apply in this case?
August 1, 2004
It was bound to happen sometime. The debate over separation of church and state found its way to our little corner of the universe last week when South Lake Tahoe, prompted by a citizen complaint, ordered the removal of Vern Lee’s interpretation of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” from the Senior Center. Though the painting has a religious theme (perhaps the most famous religious-themed painting of modern times), it is a stretch to interpret its placement in the Senior Center as a government endorsement of religion, the test of First Amendment compliance government must meet.
Certainly city leaders have to take a complaint seriously, especially when it relates to our most important constitutional right. And certainly da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is a painting rife with Christian imagery: Jesus Christ and the apostles partaking in the last supper, a ceremony replicated in many modern Christian services. But ultimately, we must ask whether placement of the painting in a public place threatens, or could ultimately threaten, the free exercise of religious beliefs (or atheism) in our society.
The question boils down to a debate between study and practice. Art is ultimately a study of the artist’s intentions, just like theology in the academic world is the study of religion, atheism and everything in between. If Lee’s “Last Supper” is an endorsement of religion, so too is the study of Buddhism in public universities.
Placement of the painting in a public place is not a practice of religion, it’s the creation of a forum for interpretation.
And so, Lee’s “Last Supper” does not have a religious purpose if put in this context. And it does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion in South Lake Tahoe. And it does not create an excessive entanglement between government and religion. It is just a painting on a wall, there for the appreciation of passers-by. Creating a forum for interpreting and appreciating art is not tantamount to endorsing its content.
Currently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is hosting an exhibit titled “Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum.” This government-run gallery is full of religious-themed artwork, including traveling exhibits. Do these works of art violate our rights? Common sense says no, just like common sense says Lee’s “Last Supper” does not.
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