A mural application by the First Presbyterian Church of Woodburn was approved by the Public Art Mural Committee last week, after a discussion about the appropriateness of religious symbols on public property.
The ordinance that established Woodburns public art program in 2012 requires that the mural be donated to the city in the form of an easement, so although the painting was commissioned by the church and will be displayed on its exterior, south-facing wall, it effectively resides on public property.
It was kind of interesting, said the Rev. David Morelli, pastor of First Presbyterian. We heard that it was a concern that some people had expressed that might come up at the meeting. It was fun to discuss.
The primary subject of the painting is natural sights common to the Willamette Valley: vineyards, forests, Mount Hood, a wheat field. However, a table set with bread and a goblet of wine (both important Christian symbols) is prominent, and the background features a white church with a cross-topped steeple.
Because in the ordinance, you agree to turn the rights over to the city, it became a little bit of an issue because of the religious symbols, Morelli said. You know, can you have a religious symbol on a mural thats owned by the city?
Both the church and the Woodburn city attorneys office commented on the issue at the May 19 meeting.
Assistant City Attorney Jon Stuart even prepared a memo and brief presentation that discussed Supreme Court rulings and the current law regarding religious themes in public art.
The primary legal issue is the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any law respecting the establishment of religion.
However, Stuart wrote, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that a religious monument on public property would not violate the establishment clause if the nature of the monument is not primarily religious and has a historical context in the community.
The First Amendment also prohibits the government from impeding the free exercise of religion.
Stuart noted that, in 2005, the high court determined a monument at the state capitol building in Texas depicting the Ten Commandments from the Bible did not violate the First Amendment.
Generally, the more prominent and overt the religious material in a mural, the less appropriate it may become, Stuart wrote. However, the Court has stated that even significantly religious images may be appropriate depending on the location and the historical/cultural context.
Morelli said he had pointed out his church has a significant tie to the history of Woodburn.
Our church has been in the community since 1851, he said.
The churchs mural is the second to be approved by the city. The first, at CAPACES Leadership Institute, is a colorful depiction of the migrant farm community in the Willamette Valley and was completed last September.
Unlike the CAPACES mural, which is painted directly onto the building, First Presbyterians was done on seven wood panels that will be mounted on the side of the church facing Highway 214.
The painting was done by Dave Huddleston, a Silverton native whose sister is the organist at First Presbyterian. With the addition of a side panel that explains the interpretation of the mural, the painting is 32 feet long and 8 feet tall.
It is dedicated to the memory of the late Lois Seely Wengenroth, a church member, longtime school teacher and founder of the West Woodburn Golf Course. A golf course is also depicted on the mural in Wengenroths honor.