KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Washburn University doesn't have to remove a controversial statue criticized as offensive to Roman Catholics, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
A student and a faculty member at Topeka's Washburn University sued in U.S. District Court over the statue titled "Holier Than Thou," which went on display on campus in September and is scheduled to remain there until July. The work, by sculptor Jerry Boyle of Longmont, Colo., portrays a jowly clergyman wearing a ceremonial cap known as a miter, which some people claim resembles a penis.
At a hearing on a request for an injunction, Archbishop James P. Keleher of Kansas City, Kan., called the statue "very offensive" and said it made "a mockery of the teaching of our faith and of the authority of our church."
When asked if some Catholics might have a different view of the sculpture, the archbishop responded, "If you are an informed, practicing Catholic, you will be offended by this."
In his 22-page ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Van Bebber found that the municipal university had not violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The clause bars government from aiding one religion, or all religions, or preferring one religion over another.
"In an environment of higher learning on a college campus, the court cannot conclude that a reasonable observer would perceive the university's display of 'Holier Than Thou' as an attack on Catholics," Van Bebber wrote in O'Connor v. Washburn University.
"The fact that 'Holier Than Thou' is a work of art, subject to myriad interpretations, further dilutes any religious meaning the sculpture may convey," he said.
The judge said he agreed with the plaintiffs that promoting hostility toward Catholics is not a legitimate government purpose. But he said they failed "to demonstrate that defendants' primary purpose in placing 'Holier Than Thou' on Washburn's campus was religious."
Van Bebber said that the sculpture's location between the student union and the main administration building was "comparable to an outdoor museum" because it shares campus grounds with 25 permanent sculptures and four others selected for temporary display in the outdoor exhibit.
The purpose of the display was to enhance the beauty of the campus, the judge said. The plaintiffs, he said, presented no evidence that sculptures were selected for the outdoor display as part of a religious theme or message, or that the placement was based on hostility toward Catholics.
Washburn President Jerry Farley said the university's position was that it had not endorsed religion or made a political statement, and that display of the sculpture was not anti-religious.
"We really can't celebrate the decision, because I know there have been some people offended by this sculpture being on our campus," Farley said. "I want them to know that we intended no offense; we intended no disrespect of anyone or any religion."
He said the university felt that it needed to protect the faculty's freedom to teach and the students' freedom to learn.
If the university had removed the sculpture because it offended some, another group could object to a library book, a play, a speaker or certain classes, Farley said.
Wasburn faculty member Thomas O'Connor, one of the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed.
"I disagree with the Washburn administration when it insists that this anti-Catholic statue should remain on campus," O'Connor said.
"It is not over," he said. "We lost the first round, but we will appeal this to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to see if we get a different ruling there than we got in Kansas City."
The controversy over the statue has led Catholic schools in several cities, and also the public schools in Wichita, to ban appearances by recruiters for Washburn. Some contributors have said they would no longer donate to the university.