A sign on public land celebrating the city of Buhler’s Mennonite heritage had been up for many years, gathering dust and rust, when the city took it down, refurbished it and tried to put it back up last year.
When it reappeared, the city was threatened with a lawsuit. The sign was adorned with a shock of wheat, common in Kansas — but the specter of legal action stemmed from its other symbol: a Christian cross.
“You can’t separate those two in a Mennonite community,” Rep. Don Schroeder, R-Hesston said. “It was the freedom of religion that brought them here and it was the wheat that sustained their lives once they got here.”
Schroeder appeared before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee Thursday to stump for a bill, HB 2037, that he said would clarify that local governments may display religious symbols that are part of their history or heritage on public grounds.
Though the group that protested the Buhler sign, Freedom from Religion, might disagree, Schroeder said such displays are not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government establishment of a preferred religion.
“A lot of people talk about ‘separation of church and state,’” Schroeder said. “That’s not in the Constitution. However there is the Establishment Clause, which says government shall make no law regarding religion. It doesn’t go the other way around, it doesn’t say that religion can not be involved in government.”
The bill would also allow historic religious displays in public schools, as long as they are “in connection with a course of study that is academic, balanced, objective, and not devotional in nature; and neither favor nor disfavor religion, generally, or any particular religious belief.”
Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that essentially represents no change from current law, but is useful in that it clarifies what school boards had already believed