Promoting Christianity on Public Property; Is it Kosher?

Update: These two murals are about to be put on the schedule as part of the $100,000 taxpayer-funded Lemon Park Mural restoration project, so now it’s time to ask the question again…

There has been some discussion over the past few years about what to do with the aging and in some cases repeatedly defaced murals that adorn the pedestrian bridge over Lemon Street.

When I went to take some pictures recently,  a new twist on the story occurred to me, and one which the ACLU-types don’t seem to have noticed: the promotion of Christianity on public property. On the east side support an actual Catholic shrine has emerged.

An interesting situation, to say the least, and one in which any artistic statement has obviously morphed into an obviously overt religious expression. Do these murals get a pass as a cultural expression that, say, a Christmas display in front of City Hall wouldn’t?

As always we welcome your thoughts on the subject.

46 Replies to “Promoting Christianity on Public Property; Is it Kosher?”

  1. Great post! This is indeed a big problem. Cultural sensitivity versus separation of church and state.

    I have to say having an actual three-dimensional and semi-permanent Catholic shrine on public property strikes me as a blatant violation of the separation doctrine. I think it has to be moved. The two-dimensional artwork doesn’t strike me as a big deal.

  2. Yes, but the display was spontaneous and private – not promoted by the government, so does that count?

    Does the mere fact that the city tolerates this shrine constitute an endorsement and promotion of Catholicism?

  3. I always thought the murals were graffiti and that city staff never got around to cleaning them up.

    That said, why would the ACLU care? The First Amendment is clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
    Here we have an expression of speech which Congress has not made a law supporting or prohibiting.

    (no particular order) First, this is a city matter, not congressional. Second, the city has been unchallenged so far as I know for over 30 years on these murals in one location or another with all of them on City-owned property. So why a challenge now? Third, this is clearly an exercise of free speech. Fourth, Fullerton and California have a significant history and relationship with the Catholic Church that dates back to the missions. So, arguably there is a historical perspective. Perhaps to balance things out, we could have murals with Buddha, the Star of David, Mohamed, and a few other religious icons.

    1. The 14th Amendment makes the 1st Amendment applicable against state and local government actions. Even though the Constitution uses the word “Congress”, that has since been extended to prohibit local governments from endorsing religion.

      The 1st Amendment contains several separate clauses, as you’ve pointed out. One clause allows individuals to freely express themselves without fear of gov’t reprisal. The “establishment clause” (totally separate issue) prohibits the gov’t from taking any action that appears to endorse a religion. The fact that one person is expressing himself does not excuse the fact that the murals appear to be examples of the gov’t endorsing Catholicism.

      The real question is whether or not the government has taken any action to endorse religion. The SC recently ruled that a rancher had to remove a war memorial from his private property that featured a large cross because his private property was surrounded by gov’t land and it gave the impression that the gov’t was endorsing Christianity.

  4. Greg, this is more than just a mural. It is an active religious (and denominational) activity on property of which I am a part owner (you too). The fact that it is “established” by years of occupancy just goes to prove the point about the establishment of religion. Case law and precedent make it clear that the “make no laws” should be interpreted broadly to include just the sort of thing we are talking about this morning.

    This is not a painting about missions or California history. It is in fact it is an active shrine to a Catholic saint – the Virgin of Guadalupe. While she is certainly a part of Mexican and hence Mexican-American culture, she is also a saint in the Catholic Church. The mural itself is not inappropriate; the physical shrine with its candles and flowers, is. It’s on public property.

    BTW, I have no idea why you are making a distinction between a Congressional issue and a local one. The Constitution is the law of the land.

    1. We often see a cross on the side of the road or highway that was placed to honor and remember someone who died. This may or may not have been placed with the same motive. Should we remove all of those crosses that represent the lives lost??? Just asking, I don’t have an answer.

      The 3D shrine and tacky look makes me cringe even though I am Catholic. Mary is not simply a “Saint” but more importantly, the mother of Jesus Christ, Our Savior. That is a pretty high pedestal which many Catholics place her on.

      The fact that one is 3D and the other is 2D shouldn’t affect the validity or religious impact that each represent.

      The distinction I make is this: Most people like to say (I know, another generalization) that the constitution separates church and state. The Constitution is quite simple in its wording: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” Hence my comment about this not being a congressional issue since Congress has not passed a law respecting an establishment of religion. There are specifically these words “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” and I believe they have some substance in a matter like this where public funds were not used and there was no endorsement from a public official or politic body.

      1. Greg, the reason I would make the distinction between 2D and 3D is that the “shrine” portion of the site is an active Catholic religious endeavor. Actually the “tackiness” speaks to its authenticity as an emotional creation (and as somebody raised Catholic I can attest to the garishness of so much stuff inside Catholic Churches).

        Of course the practical side of this is that by allowing these types of displays we are inviting any religious displays on public property – an idea that may provide comfort to some (until they see a Bhuddist Stupa pop up on the lawn in front of City Hall!); it would be occasion for a maintenance nightmare as you can imagine.

        I would argue that this shrines mere presence on public property constitutes an endorsement by the people who are elected and paid to run the City – whether any public money is spent on it or not – after they are made aware of its presence.

  5. Admin’s reaching here. Greg’s got this one mostly right. The Constitution does not have an anti religious symbol on public property clause. It has an anti establishment clause. This one seems to be so hard for so many who are embittered toward religion (God I’m going to regret that)…or should I say, god I’m going to regret that). BTW, before you tear in on me personally, I’m agnostic.

  6. Chris, how would you react to a private group of Buddhists building a stupa (I had to look that up) in front of City Hall, or in Hillcrest Park?

    Now it could be that the real issue here is simply a maintenance problem – not a first amendment issue, but I am persuaded that the City’s allowing the thing to exist does seem to constitute a kind of “establishment” – even though it is completely unintentional.

    How could the City allow this and deny anybody else’s right to create a similar thing on any public property they choose?

    1. Joe, I think you answered your own question. I don’t think the city should allow me to build a giant polar bear statue in the middle of Hillcrest Park…although that would be cool. I have not formed an opinion as to whether or not this “art” should be allowed to remain, but my opinion on that will have nothing to do with the First Amendment. There is zero doubt that our laws and culture are derived from a variety of sources including religious doctrine. God or no god, this is just a true statement. Noting that fact in a public space whether it is personally meaningful to the observer or not does not represent the establishment of a state religion. Of course Christianity is “winning” the battle for the number of religious displays. Go figure…more Christians than any other religion in America. I would not be surprised, nor disturbed if the Utah State Capitol contains some LDS art. I don’t have a problem with that. This whole thing has just gotten absurd. We’ve got people fighting against the freaking boy scouts using public schools to meet for crying out loud. I get the slippery slope argument, but after 230 years of American government without the establishment of a state religion, I’m not buying.

  7. This reminds me of that philosophy class I took many years ago…

    ACLU Mom brings up the slippery slope argument which might lend to our fears. Like Joe says, what if… What if there was a Buddhist shrine, or a Star of David or some other religious expression? I think this has lasted for so long because it represents the religion and values of the community. Perhaps it does represent all of Fullerton but certainly this neighborhood.

    For those that have ever gone to a Council meeting you will recall that the meeting begins with a prayer. Depending on who leads the prayer, it can take a number of directions.

    I think local government can take a more tolerable view of regions within it’s community. As communities change, so does the religion on its constituents. So, if the constituents as a majority are not offended and there is no overt public endorsement, I see no reason why a shrine of this sort could not exist in public places.

    I think it demonstrates tolerance and represents the faith within the community.

    If some other expression of community speech/faith/values/life-style were on public property, would that too be unconstitutional?

  8. Live and let live. Who is harmed by this shrine and painting of a cross? I admire not so much the artwork, I admire the fact that it wasn’t funded by fullerton’s redevelopment agency that uses our tax dollars to inflict their sense of aesthetics on fullerton’s residents.

  9. I just drove by this. It’s tucked away and not hurting anybody.

    Still, I do have to wonder where you draw the line.

  10. Joe,
    Now THAT is the question. If we, as a community, are to draw up the parameters and protocol – guidelines if you will – , what might they look like?

  11. Would this religious art have ever made its way onto public property if it was specifically brought before our elected representatives? I doubt it.

    Somehow these paintins just “showed up” and nobody said anything until today. The fact that it already exists is not a testament to anything other than our own unawareness.

    The real question becomes whether or not the public would allow another one tomorrow.

  12. I think that the public would not disallow another display if it were in the right location much the way the public has quietly sat by with these in their neighborhood unchallenged.

  13. Who is it that is complaining about this????

    I agree that if there was enough attention to this, it could be construed as an endorsement by the city of a particular religous icon over another. Seriously though, if no-one requests that the city come and remove it, why should it make the agenda.

    There are far bigger fish to fry in Fullerton than cleaning up this particular piece of illegal paint and litter.

    Slow news day?

  14. WTF?

    It is called discourse. No harm no foul. People discussing, as they would have a hundred years ago an issue at the back fence, but with todays technology it’s on a blog.

    I hate to be master of the obvious but this is what blogs are about: public discourse

  15. Joe, you could have spent some time researching the various issues that have arisen regarding the murals around Fullerton in the past. I think Shawn Nelson may know a thing or two about them.

  16. Yeah, I could have. Or, alternatively you could just save me the trouble by saying what’s on your mind.

  17. Ok fellow Fullertonians forget all the nonsence aclu church and state blah blah. We the people of Fullerton do we want it ? Also do the people in that area want it ? If they do let them fundraise to keep it. Im a life long resident and belive it should be there if they still want it. But they should pay for it. Im willing to pitch in a couple bucks to do this. Its time we take our country back city by city and lets start in FULLERTON “THE TOWN I LIVE IN”

    1. The Constitution applies, regardless of whether or not you “want it”. That’s the beauty of our American political system; EVERYBODY (including the City of Fullerton) is bound by a set of laws that constrain what the gov’t may and may not do. There is a process for amending the Constitution if you don’t like it.

  18. As a display of cultural identity, I think that the murals are fine. The problem that I see is that the murals are not displayed within an area that is primarily identified with that culture.

  19. I think the church/state issue has not been pursued for two reasons. First, the murals are largely tucked away in places where most people don’t see them. Second, there is a patronizing assumption that this particular imagery, centered around the Virgin of Guadalupe, is central to the culture of the residents of the area. In the same way that African American churches are assumed to be all but essential for the survival of African Americans in general, Mexican Catholicism, for lack of a better term, is assumed to be something all Mexican Americans want to see represented around them.

  20. The reason why us liberal lefty Commie ACLU types aren’t upset about the religious art is because it was not originally government mandated and it’s not on property used by government officials. It’s public. I don’t think I’ve heard of a case where us demon atheists had a outcry over public art displaying religious symbols. So that’s a stretch to compare it to displaying religious images at a City Hall. In conclusion, the city government should butt out of these murals completely.

  21. Let’s get rid of the “prayers” before each council meeting! What a travesty–calling on a god to ok what those people vote for!

    And that chronic flag salute–brainwashing to say the least. Like we’re gonna forget where we live? Or to dissent is unpatriotic?

  22. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention–painting over murals is an old Fullerton tradition. Then years later, paying big bucks to have them restored.

  23. “Let’s get rid of the “prayers” before each council meeting! What a travesty–calling on a god to ok what those people vote for!”

    And the prayers would be okay with you if they voted for what YOU wanted???????

    “And that chronic flag salute–brainwashing to say the least. Like we’re gonna forget where we live? Or to dissent is unpatriotic?”

    Go ahead and dissent – don’t do the flag salute – sit on your ass – turn your back – I am sure that the good citizens of Fullerton don’t want to look at you anyway.

  24. The murals have been there since before I was born.Where talking 36 years ago.No one has ever complained about them.I grew up here in this neighborhood.And I understand that Fullerton is trying to get a new look. Understand its not about religion its part of our culture and Fullerton has many.

  25. Hey guys, I think you lost the thread of the post here. The argument is not whether or not to allow them to remain, but whether or not to use taxpayer dollars to update them! Do you want $100,000 of your money spent to repaint/restore them? That is a different issue than whether to leave them alone.

  26. Hey everyone CW is right and that’s one of the few times she is. I say we fucking sand blast all the shit away. We don’t need no stinking murals or Mother Mary sculptures. The only money that should be spent on it is to hire a sand blaster to remove it all. There are more pressing needs for the city to consider like roads and washing away the piss and puke from downtown so I can go into the Naughty Teddy without being grossed out. God I love that place.

    1. Your fucking prick who only has the balls to post shit up on the net you pussy. Why don’t go down there and tell the first person you see your great idea.

  27. Very good point Mike Hawk, I too love the Naughty Teddy. I think a good way to honor Tony Bushala and all the great things he does for the City of Fullerton. (when not spending our tax dollars on jail for family members and slumlord duties) Is to rename Ben Wa balls in Tony’s honor. Something like, Tony plugs or Bushala balls. I’m just at a loss for a fitting name but I’m sure Whittaker can ramrod it through one dark Tuesday night.

  28. So… The debate centers on a religious icon (the cross) versus the sleazy gang-banging chola. The town I live in? I would rather see the cross, but in reality, why do we need anything? Put some kind of ivy on it so the little shitball cholos with their spray cans can’t tag it in the first place. Fullerton is more than Mexicans. But you don’t see the white population clamoring for mural space.

  29. Why do we need to have religious paintings on city own property? If someone was to paint a devil there, people would be screaming bloody murder. Another thing, why do people build shrines to their friends at the place where they died. I think it is an eyesore. I would not want you to remember me where I died, but to remember me how I lived. Good Grief people. get a life

    1. This was something already discussed at the time the murals were painted. You idiots act like some cholos just graffied those murals over night. They were put up by an artist who got permission from not only the city, but the government. I’m sure the officials would have declined the permission had they known we were going to have a bunch of insensitive bitches whining about them several years later…..hence, all of you.

      Enjoy the bars while your here visitors.

  30. You people do whatever you want on your side of the tracks, create bars, clubs, loud noise, expensive signs, drunk drivers, remodel, etc… And then you want to complain about some 30 year old murals!

    You are all racist and a bunch of assholes for stereo typing all the time!

    Fuck you and your off springs if they think like you!

  31. I just love Shawn Nelson’s comments about Tony Bushala sending one of his workers over to the park with a sprayer fill with paint remover.

    Tony would not dare to do it himself, typical piece of shit coward sending someone else to do his dirty work. Sounds like the same type of person who was responsible for poking a hole in McKinley’s gas tank.

    1. Samir, I hate stupid people of all color and I believe Tony Bushala worships unicorns, so I guess that makes me a racist.

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