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Nation & World: Sunday, June 01, 2003

Display of Christian artwork in Senate building draws fire

By Karlyn Barker
The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON An exhibit of Christian art sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has drawn criticism that the display in a Senate office building creates the impression of government-supported advocacy of one religion.

The artwork, presented by the Herndon, Va.-based Christ Jesus Ministry, was exhibited Tuesday through Friday at the Senate Russell Building Rotunda. It is the third time since 1999 that the group has displayed religious-themed artwork in the rotunda, which features weekly exhibits on a rotating basis.

People for the American Way, which says it promotes religious freedom and respect for diversity, said Friday that the artwork raises questions about the proper use of exhibit space in government buildings.

"We're not saying it's inappropriate to display art with religious themes, but this particular exhibit gives the impression to the average tourist of government-sponsored religious proselytization," said Elliot Mincberg, the organization's vice president and legal director.

"Whether it's pro- or anti-religion, the government is supposed to be neutral on those issues," Mincberg said.

Susan Irby, communications director for Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., chairman of the Rules Committee, said the panel oversees the rotunda space and approves exhibits if they are sponsored by a member of the Senate. She said Santorum sponsored the exhibit.

Exhibits judged to have educational, cultural or commemorative importance are permitted, and there is no prohibition on artwork "with spiritual or religious connotations," she said. Committee staff members review photos of the artwork and any accompanying text before the final go-ahead is given.

Santorum, who drew fire from gay-rights groups after he criticized homosexuality and equated it to bigamy, incest and adultery, could not be reached for comment.

Clarence John Martin, president of Christ Jesus Ministry, said his group collects religious works from around the world and has displayed them in the rotunda in 1999 and 2001, also under Santorum's sponsorship.

Martin said the exhibits show the works of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans and others. He said his group's show was preceded by an exhibit "that was limited to Jewish art."

On the exhibit's last day Friday, artists Johnathan Dwayne of Puerto Rico and Terri Derocher of Spokane were on hand to talk to visitors about their work.

Dwayne peeled back the cardboard that covered one of his paintings that was sitting off to the side. He said the work, which showed the bleeding back of Christ, had been pulled from the exhibit. "The Rules Committee said no blood, but there's no Christ without the blood," he said.

It was not censorship, Irby said.

"This is a federal building, not an art gallery," she said.

"We get students and families, and the bar's a little different in a federal building than in an art gallery."

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