Jesus portrait in Breathitt courthouse could draw lawsuit

Local artists have put up other photos at the Breathitt County courthouse near a picture of Jesus. A non-believers group has complained about the picture of Jesus.
Local artists have put up other photos at the Breathitt County courthouse near a picture of Jesus. A non-believers group has complained about the picture of Jesus.

Drawings of Jesus, Mr. Magoo and some beautiful landscapes share wall space in the main hallway of the courthouse in Breathitt County.

Whether that will stave off a lawsuit over the Jesus portrait remains to be seen.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Breathitt County Judge-Executive John Lester “JL” Smith in August, asking him to remove the drawing of Jesus.

Having the portrait displayed in a government building is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, said Rebecca S. Markert, an attorney with the foundation.

“This picture conveys to all visitors of the Breathitt County Courthouse that Christianity is the favored religion of government,” Markert wrote.

The portrait by artist Connie J. Combs, which appears to be done in charcoal and measures about 2 feet by 3 feet, shows a man kneeling before Jesus. The caption says “In your place what would Jesus do.”

It also contains a message saying the picture belongs to the people of the county “and is not to be removed.” The picture, dated 1981, has hung in the courthouse for more than three decades.

Smith did not respond to the foundation’s letter.

‘Til a federal judge tells me otherwise, I intend for it to be as it is.

Breathitt County Judge-Executive John Lester “JL” Smith

However, he did take a novel approach to the complaint, soliciting local artists to put up other works that have created a sort of people’s art gallery in the courthouse hallway.

The walls now feature landscapes, still life studies, a portrait of MSNBC host and political commentator Rachel Maddow, and drawings of Snow White, Pinocchio and Mr. Magoo.

Smith said his only rules on people submitting work are that the artist has to be a local resident and sign the work, and that the pictures not be pornographic or violent.

J.B. Combs, a 68-year-old artist who has taken several of his pastel landscapes to the courthouse, said he has already sold two pictures and has orders for more.

“I’ve been pretty doggone busy,” Combs said.

And Smith said another artist sold a picture based on the state’s unofficial religion — University of Kentucky basketball.

Smith said he solicited other pictures to hang to reinforce that there is no religious intent behind keeping the picture of Jesus.

The intent behind posting or maintaining that picture and the others — whether religious or secular — would be a key question if someone sues the county.

Smith said a local artist could put up a picture of Buddha or Satan in the courthouse as long as the work met the criteria.

“We’re not leaving it hanging there for religious beliefs,” Smith said of the Jesus picture.

Markert, however, said she didn’t think putting up secular pictures would get the county off the hook in a federal lawsuit.

It appears there was a religious motivation for hanging the picture of Jesus initially, and there is still a religious purpose in having it displayed, even with others around it, Markert said.

“It’s a sham solution to save a religious painting,” Markert said.

The foundation says it represents the views of non-believers and works to protect the constitutional separation of church and state.

The foundation is still contemplating suing. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, it recently requested documents, such as fiscal court minutes, from the county in evaluating whether to sue.

Markert said the foundation has a county resident interested in suing.

The organization is looking for others who would put their names on the lawsuit as well, however, so the onus would not be on one person.

Suing to force removal of the picture could be a lonely pursuit in the rural, socially and religiously conservative county.

People rallied in support of keeping the picture after the foundation’s initial letter.

Tom Lorimer said there is a “broad perspective of Christian faith” in Breathitt County, where he is a pastor and academic dean at Kentucky Mountain Bible College.

“It is an expression of the basic faith here in the county of the people who live here,” Lorimer said of the picture at issue.

Lorimer said the complaint about the picture from the foundation, based in Wisconsin, is offensive.

Kentucky has often been prominent in controversies over the separation of church and state.

Two court cases from the state set nationwide precedents on posting copies of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has made headlines nationwide this year for her refusal to issue marriage licenses because she opposes same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

Smith said Breathitt County will fight if the Freedom From Religion Foundation sues and that he would not take down the drawing of Jesus voluntarily.

“‘Til a federal judge tells me otherwise, I intend for it to be as it is,” he said.