A decade ago, the city of Edmond was forced to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees after losing a court battle to keep a cross on its city seal.
Just last year, a city art commission backed down from a decision to use public funds on a statue of Moses at Edmond’s First Christian Church.
Now, the same commission in this conservative suburb north of Oklahoma City is moving full speed ahead with plans to use public funds to erect a statue of Jesus Christ on a city sidewalk in front of a downtown business just in time for Christmas.
“This is the third major unconstitutional effort they’ve engaged in 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.”
The Edmond Visual Arts Commission last month approved spending $3,900 in city funds to help pay for the 26-inch-tall bronze statue of Jesus surrounded by three children. Titled “Come Unto Me,” the sculpture will be placed in front of Sacred Heart Catholic Gifts, a downtown shop.
“I don’t see a problem with it. I’m not a church,” said shop owner Karen Morton, who privately raised the other $3,900 before seeking matching funds from the commission. “I’ve had absolutely no negative calls or anyone coming into the store with negative comments.”
June Cartwright, the chair of the commission who supported funding the statue, defended the decision and 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.”
A message left Tuesday with the artist, Rosalind Cook, was not immediately returned, but her Web site describes the image as depicting Jesus with three young children.
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, responded: “I think there are differences of opinions regarding that issue.”
Murdock declined to say what his recommendations were to the commission.
Michael Salem, the Norman 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.”